Federal weapons prosecutions jumped nearly 11 percent over the last year as the government gets more serious about the one part of the gun debate all sides can agree on: enforcing the laws already on the books.
It’s the third straight year of increased prosecutions, countering a decline that began under President George W. Bush and continued in the early years of President Obama.
The 8,235 weapons prosecutions in fiscal year 2017 were up from 7,488 a year earlier, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
The three most common charges were for violations of laws prohibiting felons from having a gun, enhanced penalties for the use of a gun during a crime, and unlawful possession of a gun by an illegal immigrant.
In a rare moment of unity, advocates on both sides of the issue cheered the trend in prosecutions.
Gun-rights activists chalked it up to new Justice Department policies issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, highlighted by a March memo directing prosecutors to enforce gun laws more vigorously as part of a new directive to use any and all tools available to charge criminals.
In the three months following the memo, the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm increased nearly 23 percent, to 2,637, compared to numbers from the same period a year earlier, the Justice Department said.
“The uptick in gun prosecutions is, no doubt, a result of this administration’s concerted effort to overturn the ‘soft on crime’ attitude that permeated the Obama administration,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America.
Mr. Pratt said that while his group does have some constitutional concerns about the federal government’s involvement in what can largely be a state and local issue, people should expect to see a resulting decline in crime.
“To the degree that this administration has reversed the ‘soft on crime’ attitude from the Obama years, we will begin to see more bad actors prosecuted — such as the illegal alien who killed Kate Steinle,” he said. “It is worth noting that the one guilty verdict in that case was for possessing a gun while a felon.”
Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, the illegal immigrant who shot Steinle on a San Francisco pier in 2015, was acquitted by a state jury of murder and manslaughter, but found guilty of being a felon in possession of a gun.
The Justice Department has since won a federal indictment against Garcia Zarate, who was born in Mexico, on both immigration and gun charges.
For their part, gun control activists, while cheering more prosecutions, said the legal campaign cannot become a substitute for new laws and restrictions.
Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that law enforcement agencies are taking unlawful possessions of guns seriously and that the crimes are being prosecuted, said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Attorney General Sessions has said that it’s a priority of his to enforce the existing laws. I agree that we should enforce the laws on the books about dangerous people in possession of firearms,” Ms. Gardiner said.
Ms. Gardiner said part of the increase in prosecutions might have to do with the federal government simply assuming more of the cases that would have otherwise been handled at the state or local level.
In the wake of the 2012 Newtown school shooting, President Obama outlined a gun control plan that called on the U.S. attorney general to work with U.S. attorneys around the country “to continue to ensure that every appropriate resource is focused on preventing gun violence.”
“To this end, the attorney general will ask all U.S. Attorneys to consider whether supplemental efforts would be appropriate in their districts, in areas such as prosecutions of people who have been convicted of a felony and illegally seek to obtain a firearm, or people who attempt to evade the background check system by providing false information,” the president’s plan said.
Ms. Gardiner said that expanded gun-purchase background checks would also help ensnare even more people who are legally barred from getting guns.
“I hope that it does indicate a different approach to enforcing the laws, and that that would be shown by an overall increase — not just a shift from the state level to the federal level,” she said.