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Gun laws' effect on crime seems minimal


May 31, 2000

"The idea of certainty of punishment -- the guts of the bill -- is an idea whose time has come. (Michigan needs) to make it clear that anyone who is convicted of a gun-related crime will go to prison. Period."

-- Free Press editorial

LANSING -- Judging by the behavior of the Michigan House of Representatives last week, one might get the impression those words were ringing in their ears.

In the middle of a divisive debate over gun control, the House approved a bill to enact a version of Project Exile, a Richmond, Va., program that cracks down on gun criminals with tough mandatory-minimum prison sentences.

It is, however, unlikely that anyone was thinking about that editorial, when the bill passed by a bipartisan majority of 80-23. It goes to the Senate next.

It was written in January 1976.

The bill referred to in the editorial -- Michigan's felony firearm statute -- has been on the books for 23 years. Like Project Exile, it was intended to reduce gun violence by creating a disincentive for the criminally inclined to pack heat.

But when it comes to guns, criminals and politicians, the appeal of "the idea of certainty of punishment" is timeless. Whether it is also an idea that translates into effective public policy is a question that has been rarely addressed in the decades since the felony firearm statute -- which created mandatory, non-parolable sentences of 2-10 years for anyone convicted of possessing a firearm at the time of committing any other felony -- went on the books.

A Free Press analysis of the felony firearm law found that:

Prosecutors like it and use it, but say they don't know whether it prevents crime.

Criminals ignore it. "When criminals commit crimes, we don't plan on getting caught, so the penalties are irrelevant," said one Michigan inmate who was twice convicted of violating the statute.

Research on its effectiveness has been limited, and mixed. Michigan crime statistics indicated that the role of guns in crime has changed little since 1977.

The authors of one study, published in 1992, said they found that mandatory sentences, like those in the felony firearm law, produced "clear and convincing evidence" of a reduced incidence of homicide in Detroit and six other cities. The same study, however, found little or no impact on the incidence of serious assault and robbery.




Laws and drop in crime

A Free Press review of statewide crime statistics before and after the felony firearm law was enacted supports the little-or-no-impact theory.

Since the mid-'70s, overall crime is down dramatically.

The number of homicides reported statewide in 1974, for instance, was 1,170. In recent years, it has been about half that.

The role of the law is less clear.

Of the homicides committed in 1974, about 69.5 percent were gun murders. Twenty-one years later, 70.6 percent of all murders in Michigan were committed with a gun. Firearm assault appeared to be more prevalent after the state created a special penalty for gun use; the use of guns in robberies was down.

John Lott, a Yale University economist and prolific researcher on gun violence, said it may be impossible to sort out a specific relationship between gun penalties and declining crime rates.

But he said it is likely not very significant. Lott said his work showed that higher arrest rates were the single greatest factor that contributed to a decline in crime.

"But it makes a lot better sense to just increase" criminal penalties than to target guns, Lott said.

Lott's views on mandatory gun penalties are at odds with those of the National Rifle Association, which often touts his other work as supportive of gun rights.

Support on the right, left

The NRA views Project Exile -- which is designed to coordinate local and federal investigation of gun crimes and refer appropriate cases for federal prosecution and mandatory sentencing -- as a paragon of sensible federal policy. The organization says the project targets gun criminals rather than gun owners, and has called for its replication around the country.

On the left, it has supporters such as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who said Project Exile had produced "tremendous" results in his home state -- 166 guns confiscated in the first year. He wants to spend $50 million on a national expansion.

State a pioneer in gun law

After 23 years, most citizens in Michigan have likely forgotten or never knew that their state was one of the pioneers in targeting gun-carrying criminals with mandatory penalties.

Department of Corrections statistics indicate that Wayne County has 4,557 prisoners serving time on felony firearm convictions, nearly one of every three convicts the county sends to prison. Oakland County has sent 687, and Macomb County, 228, according to the department.

Prosecutors in each of the counties said they view the law as an effective law enforcement tool. By that, they could mean that it makes citizens safer. Oakland County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John O'Brien II said "the most dangerous criminals are those who commit crimes with guns."

But they also could be recognizing that the felony firearm law makes their lives easier by giving them another hammer with which to whack a felony suspect.

Joe Cozzolino, the chief assistant prosecutor in Macomb County, said he favors "anything that gets bad guys off the streets."

But, he said: "I don't know how much of a deterrent" the felony firearm law is. "These are people that are taking a tremendous risk of injury and jail by committing crimes in the first place."

That view was echoed by prisoners. More than 30 who have been convicted at least twice under the felony firearm law responded to a survey on its efficacy.

Fewer than one in 10 said they believed it made "some people less likely to carry or use guns."

The reasons they gave for carrying and using guns were pragmatic; one inmate pointed out that criminals don't plan to get caught. Another noted that he "needed a gun to rob the dope house," and a third responded that "having a gun makes people respond quick."

Michigan's Project Exile program is projected to cost $1.4 million a year in prosecution costs alone.

Is Exile really effective?

Proponents of Project Exile argue that it could be more effective because some federal penalties for gun violations are more severe than those available under state law, even when state law is enhanced by the felony firearm statute.

In Virginia, authorities said Project Exile worked by quickly removing dangerous felons from the streets.

Of course, the penalty for committing rape, murder or robbery always carries a more severe penalty than illegal possession, no matter what jurisdiction is doing the prosecuting.

Furthermore, though no one argues with the notion of removing dangerous felons from the streets, U.S. Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., whose district includes Richmond, said there's no evidence that Project Exile's emphasis on guns does an especially good job of identifying or prosecuting the most dangerous criminals.

Scott questioned whether it makes sense for the federal government or the states to expand it.

"The first question we ought to ask about a program like this is whether it does anything," Scott said.

According to Scott, the well-publicized reduction in crime in Richmond under Project Exile was equaled or bettered in other Virginia cities without the program. Furthermore, as in Michigan, Richmond gun crime didn't seem to go down any faster than other kinds of crime when gun criminals are targeted, Scott said.

Scott made those arguments during debate over a national Project Exile in the U.S. House a year ago, shortly before the legislation was approved 356-60.

His explanation?

"Nobody has ever lost an election voting for a crime bill that has a catchy title."

Contact DAWSON BELL at 313-222-6609 or [email protected].

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