Politics & Policy

Conservative for Gun Control

Why don’t we actually prosecute gun crimes?

The Democrats say they want commonsense gun-control measures. People on all sides say they want pragmatic, bipartisan solutions to our national problems. So, what can conservatives support?

The Democrats’ opening bid this time around is, regardless of how Republicans receive it, a dead letter, inasmuch as their proposal — having police agencies compile secret lists of possible subversives and revoking their legal rights with nothing resembling due process — is plainly unconstitutional, and wouldn’t withstand five minutes’ legal examination. When the Democrats talk about the so-called terror gap, that’s what they’re talking about: keeping a list of people who have been identified by police agencies as possible threats, but who never have been charged with, much less convicted of, any crime, and rescinding their ordinary constitutional rights without so much as a court hearing. We cannot prohibit people from buying guns with no due process for the same reason we cannot subject them to arbitrary incarceration or hunt them for sport.

Other ideas are being kicked around that have been kicked around, and some of them even have been tried, such as the ban on so-called assault weapons. Study after study after study has shown that the assault-weapon ban had zero effect on violent crime when it was in effect, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have one now, either. And, given that the archetypal “assault rifle” — which is an ordinary sporting rifle following the old Armalite design — is the most popular rifle in the United States, a ban that had any hope of having any effect would have to be accompanied by a national confiscation policy. The Democrats keep saying that they don’t want to take away our guns, but that is, in fact, what this policy would demand.

Republicans often demand that we “enforce the laws we have,” but what does that mean?

There are a few avenues that we could pursue along those lines.

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Several years ago, the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois — the federal prosecutor responsible for Chicago — announced that, as a matter of policy, his office would not be pursuing prosecutions in most cases involving “straw buyers,” the clean faces who use their unblemished records to purchase firearms on behalf of convicted criminals and others prohibited from legally purchasing firearms. These cases are lots of work and generally don’t ensnare big-time criminals, but rather the idiot nephews, girlfriends, and grandmothers of big-time criminals. Putting those people in federal penitentiaries for ten years isn’t going to win anybody any friends. But they are the people who render our current background-check laws ineffective against the criminals who have turned parts of Chicago into a free-fire zone. Putting a few dozen of them away for a few dozen years might provide a strong disincentive for other would-be straw buyers, particularly those who (as is not uncommon) engage in straw buying as a commercial endeavor.

It isn’t just the federal authorities. In most of our states, including those with the cities suffering the most from violent crime, the ratio of illegal guns seized to gun cases prosecuted demonstrates just how unseriously these crimes are treated almost everywhere, New York being the notable exception.

Let’s not hear any more about expanding background checks, which already are comprehensive so far as licensed firearms dealers are concerned, until we start punishing the people who subvert those laws.

#share#A second issue touching background checks: Often, the FBI is not able to process a gun buyer’s application within the three days required by law. If the FBI cannot give an answer, the sale can go forward under what is known as a “default proceed,” the gun buyer’s version of “innocent until proven guilty.” In tens of thousands of cases each year, the FBI discovers, after the fact, that the sale should not have proceeded. At this point, it issues an alert to the ATF, which in most cases then . . . does nothing at all. In a study of the 2000 data, there were about 45,000 sales that the FBI wrongly allowed to proceed, and in about 38,000 of those cases, no effort was made to recover the firearm.

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The ATF has lots of people, and they have cars. Picking up wrongly sold guns isn’t that big a chore. In fact, since most of these prohibited buyers have committed a serious crime in buying a gun (though many of them may not have known it — otherwise, why go to a licensed dealer?) a strongly worded letter (“Return your gun to the dealer or go to federal prison”) and a bit of follow-up ought to do the trick. The precise number of wrongly approved gun sales that the federal government allows to proceed and then fails to address is, at the moment, unknown, but the only acceptable number is: zero.

The massacre in Orlando is horrifying, but the great majority of our murders are nothing like that. They are the ordinary work of ordinary criminals, who in most cases (more than 90 percent in New York City) already are known to police, as indeed was Omar Mateen. These killers and future killers are on the street committing their crimes because our criminal-justice system, with its vast resources, does not do its job. The police, the prosecutors, the jailers, and the parole-and-probation authorities all must answer for the fact that such a large share of our murders are committed by people already well known to law enforcement.

RELATED: What Gun-Control Advocates Mean but Dare Not Say: Guns Should Be Confiscated

In the case of Mateen, three interviews by FBI agents — agents who suspected him of being connected to international Islamist terrorism — didn’t provide enough information to hang a humble domestic-abuse charge on him, which would have been enough to keep him from legally acquiring firearms, to say nothing of his being employed as a security guard. But, somehow, the would-be technocrats among us have convinced themselves that more automated-database queries are going to do the trick.

#related#Terrorist atrocities are difficult to anticipate and to prevent, especially as the Islamists move from al-Qaeda–style spectaculars that require a great deal in the way of planning and coordination to simpler intifada-style attacks, such as shooting up a nightclub or a bus. And there’s a great deal of ordinary crime that really can’t be prevented, either. But there’s a fair number of crimes that could be prevented, if the people we pay to prevent them were willing to do the old-fashioned police work necessary: running down criminals, prosecuting unglamorous cases, properly managing parolees.

But those jobs are entrusted to government employees, whose unions are irreplaceable benefactors of Democratic political campaigns. Hence when an ISIS groupie from New York shoots up a gay bar in Orlando under the nose of the FBI, it’s somehow the fault of quail-hunters in Texas and .223 enthusiasts in Idaho.

The alternative would be expecting the generously compensated and gorgeously pensioned employees of the public sector to do their goddamned jobs, which is, if you’re a scheming, opportunistic lowlife like Chuck Schumer, unthinkable.

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its initial posting.


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