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How the big new crime bill will affect bad guys with guns

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Just a few hours before nine people were shot and killed at a community college in Oregon on Thursday, senators on Capitol Hill introduced major new legislation addressing criminal justice reform.

Lawmakers have described the bill as a compromise between those who say too many offenders are serving excessive terms in prison, and those who think heavy sentences keep the public safe. The bill reduces sentences for federal offenders who have committed drug crimes — and to give them more opportunities in prison to reform their behavior. At the same time, there are other provisions regarding firearms that would mean some armed criminals would do more time.

It's illegal for many people who have been convicted of a felony in the past to have a gun in their possession. Under the proposed legislation, felons who are breaking the law by keeping a gun -- but who haven't committed any other new crimes -- could receive stricter sentences. The bill would increase the maximum sentence for ex-convicts who are later convicted of illegally possessing a firearm from 10 to 15 years.

All together, the law give judges greater discretion to lock away long-time criminals whom they see as dangerous -- even if those offenders haven't committed a new crime other than possessing a weapon -- while treating others more leniently.

"This bipartisan package will protect law enforcement's ability to aggressively target violent criminals and serious offenders," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), one of the sponsors of the bill, in a statement.

Yet some experts cautioned that changes in sentencing were unlikely to reduce criminal gun violence, and that the ready availability of guns is the main reason for the unusual frequency of firearms fatalities in the United States.

"I have been involved in the investigation and the arrest of a lot of murder suspects, not one of them said to me, 'Well, I calculated what the amount of time I was going to get if I did this,' " said Jim Bueermann, formerly the police chief in Redlands, Calif. "I don't know that I've ever talked to a criminal who could articulate what the sentencing guidelines were."

Criminologists have found scant evidence that stricter punishments do not discourage people from breaking the law. What criminals are most worried about is the chance that they'll be caught, regardless of how much time they'll do if they are, these experts say.

Placing armed and dangerous people behind bars does prevent them from hurting anyone, but incarceration can only achieve so much to reduce violence when would-be criminals can readily obtain guns.

Although fewer Americans own guns now than in the past, the United States still has relatively more guns than any other country in the world -- there are about as many guns as people here.

Data on homicides show that more people are killed in parts of the United States where there are more guns. The presence of more firearms is also associated with elevated homicide rates in other developed countries as well.

The vast majority of people who own firearms are not violent criminals. It isn't surprising, though, that there is a connection between the number of guns sitting in stores and households and the amount of crime. It could be that those who intend to harm others can get a hold of a gun more easily, whether by buying guns second-hand, purchasing them under the table from licensed dealers willing to look the other way, or by stealing them. About 232,000 guns are stolen each year in the United States, federal statistics show.

"Where there are more guns, there is more death," said David Hemenway, a professor of public health at Harvard University. He recommends that policymakers who want to restrain gun violence consider requiring people who own guns to secure them, either in a safe or with components that prevent theft.

Another approach, Hemenway said, would be to require background checks for anyone buying a gun second-hand, which would prevent criminals from getting around the existing system, but that idea failed in Congress due to a filibuster in the Senate in 2013.

The prospects for the current sentencing bill are unclear.

While legislation that addresses similar subjects has been introduced in the House of Representatives, it hasn't advanced, and lawmakers are bracing for major disputes over funding the federal government and extending its borrowing authority.