“Last year, we enacted the Stop School Violence and Fix NICS acts into law, providing grants to improve school safety and strengthening critical background checks for firearm purchases. At my direction, the Department of Justice banned bump stocks. Last year, we prosecuted a record number of firearms offenses. But there is so much more that we have to do.”
— President Trump, speaking from the White House after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, Aug. 5, 2019
In responding to the weekend attacks in two major cities, President Trump touted what he described as “bipartisan” efforts to deal with gun violence. We were curious about one of his claims — that the administration in 2018 prosecuted “a record number of firearms offenses” — and we wondered about what he left off his list.
After all, the National Rifle Association was a big backer of Trump in the 2016 election, spending about $30 million either supporting Trump or attacking Hillary Clinton, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The president, who has pushed such NRA goals as eliminating gun-free zones at schools, has addressed the group’s annual meeting three times, more than any other president. (The last president to attend the NRA’s annual meetings was Ronald Reagan in 1983.)
The president’s claim of a record number of firearms prosecutions comes from a Justice Department news release issued in the fall, a couple of weeks before then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to resign. In fiscal 2018, “the Justice Department charged more than 15,300 defendants with federal firearms offenses, which is 17 percent more than the previous record,” the release claimed.
But those numbers do not track with research by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. TRAC, which relies on department data from Freedom of Information Act requests and is considered an authoritative source, says the number of federal weapons prosecutions in fiscal 2018 was 10,058. That would place 2018 in fourth place, with 2004 — which had 11,015 — in first place.
However, so far in fiscal 2019, the administration is on pace to set a record. TRAC in June projected that current trends would bring the year’s final number to 11,187.
Susan Long, TRAC’s co-director, said the Justice Department was counting cases in which weapons prosecutions were not one of the main charges (and in fact may have been dropped during plea negotiations). By contrast, TRAC counts only cases in which weapons violations were the primary purpose of the prosecution.
Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, said: “TRAC uses its own methodologies in interpreting the data it receives, resulting in conclusions that we cannot verify. Data provided by TRAC routinely differs from data and statistics reflected in the Executive Office of United States Attorneys’ published annual reports, DOJ’s main litigating division reports, U.S. Sentencing Commission data and U.S. Courts data.”
Carr provided Justice Department data for fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2019 showing that more weapons cases were filed in fiscal 2018 than any other year in that period and that there were more defendants. Fiscal 2018 ranked third in terms of total defendants guilty of a firearms offense. (Not every case ends in conviction in the year it is filed.)
Published Justice Department data also shows that fiscal 2019 is on track to rank first in every category going back to fiscal 2000.
The Justice Department and TRAC numbers generally track each other through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, but for reasons that are unclear they diverge sharply in the Trump administration. The gap is getting wider.
For instance, TRAC has fiscal 2004 as the top year, with 11,015 cases filed, while the Justice Department shows fiscal 2004 as having 11,067 cases, making it second to fiscal 2018. But the Justice Department’s number of cases filed for fiscal 2018 is 12,559, compared with TRAC’s 10,058. For the current fiscal year, TRAC has the agency on pace to bring 11,187 cases, compared with the Justice Department’s estimate of 14,032. That’s a difference of 20 percent.
“There are lots of ways of counting,” Long said. “There is no question that it is going up.”
The increase can be attributed to the Trump administration. In March 2017, Sessions ordered prosecutors to prioritize gun prosecutions, often by adopting ongoing gun cases from local police and prosecutors. (Most weapons violations are handled at the state and local level.)
An article in Slate said that more than half of the defendants appear to be African American and that some law enforcement professionals are bothered that there is little guidance on what the federal government considers priority cases. The program is just “chasing numbers,” one prosecutor told Slate. “The message is ‘target,’ but what they do is ‘net.’ ”
Meanwhile, while the president touted passage of two relatively minor gun laws and his order to ban bump stocks, he did not mention several actions he has taken to please his backers in the gun industry.
1. He signed a law that blocked the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients to a national background-check database. The Obama administration had crafted the rule in response to a law signed by George W. Bush after the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007. The SSA planned to identify an estimated 75,000 to 80,000 people who received Social Security disability payments and received assistance to manage their benefits because of mental impairments.
(We should note that the proposed rule was criticized not only by the NRA but also the American Civil Liberties Union and some advocates for the mentally ill. Trump signed the law quietly, with little of the fanfare that accompanied many of his rollbacks of last-minute Obama regulations.)
2. In 2017, the Justice Department issued a new definition of “fugitive” that allows more people with outstanding arrest warrants to legally buy guns. Under the revised rule, the FBI can block gun sales only to fugitives who have fled the states where their arrest warrants were issued to avoid imminent prosecution or a summons to testify in a legal case. The FBI had previously adopted a broader definition, refusing guns to anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained FBI records showing that after the new guidance, more than 500,000 names were dropped from the national law enforcement database used to determine who may purchase a firearm. Data also shows that in the first six months, there was an 80 percent decline in the number of gun sales denied because the buyer was a fugitive.
3. The Trump administration in 2018 also reversed an Obama State Department decision that prevented the online publication of blueprints for 3-D-printed guns. (A federal judge later blocked the release, citing risks to public safety.)
4. Finally, the president buckled under to NRA pressure in 2018 after he called for raising the age limit to purchase rifles and backed a bipartisan proposal for near-universal background checks. Less than a month later, he backed down, opting for relatively minor measures that met with the NRA’s approval.
The Pinocchio Test
The Trump administration has boosted the number of prosecutions for firearms offenses, though whether fiscal 2018 set a record is in dispute. Certainly, however, the administration is on track to set a record in this fiscal year, but that’s not enough for a Geppetto Checkmark.
But while the president tried to make the case he’s been tough on guns, his administration has also worked hard to weaken gun rules and regulations, often at the behest of the NRA. His speech left an incomplete picture of his actions on guns, but because that may be a matter of opinion, we will leave this unrated. Readers can offer their own ruling below.
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