The National Rifle Association’s bullying, funded by hysterical members and gun manufacturers fighting to maintain market share, has long blocked legislation to permanently ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and to close the gun-show loophole on background checks.
Conventional wisdom says that could change: Meaningful gun control is now possible, tragically, in response the Connecticut massacre of 27 teachers and young students. But there’s also peril here: The momentum to pass meaningful gun-control measures could be co-opted by the right’s so-called law-and-order approach of mandatory minimum sentences for illegal gun possession. Gun-control advocates should be wary of such legislation, which not only fails to stem gun violence but also exacerbates another problem: our bloated prison system, now home to 2.2 million Americans.
This year, the Pennsylvania House passed, by a 190-7 vote, just such a pro-incarceration measure. House Bill 2331 would have imposed a mandatory five-year-minimum sentence on any convicted felon caught carrying a gun. Thankfully, it was never voted on by the Senate.
Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware County), a tenacious and lonely critic of mandatory minimums whom Republican opponents like to deride as soft on crime, explains: “Many legislators fear voting against mandatory minimums because you can get hammered politically. … You always lose the sound-bite war.”
House Bill 2331 merits skepticism as a “gun control” bill. After all, it was backed by fringe-right state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a co-sponsor of Pennsylvania’s “Stand Your Ground” law (remember Trayvon Martin?) and an ally of the “makes the NRA look like a pack of liberal bed-wetters” Firearm Owners Against Crime. Metcalfe’s libertarian outlook on guns doesn’t extend to those, disproportionately non-white and poor, caught in the criminal-justice system. “If a criminal uses a gun, they ought to have the hammer of justice brought down on their head pretty severely,” he said in May.
Philly District Attorney Seth Williams and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey testified in favor. “This bill will go a long way toward being a disincentive to people to carrying a gun illegally,” Ramsey told the Inquirer. “It’s going to make a lot of people think twice.”
But Pennsylvania law already imposes a mandatory five-year sentence for felons who commit a new crime while armed — to little effect. A 2007 Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing report found that “neither the length of sentence, nor the imposition of the mandatory sentence per se, was a predictor of recidivism.”
Commission executive director Mark Bergstrom, however, warned that the law could put thousands more in prison. CeaseFirePA’s Max Nachmann, an earnest opponent of gun violence, brushed off the evidence, telling the Inky that “the bill will result in … fewer people in the ground shot dead and fewer people behind bars as people get the message that it’s not OK to carry a gun illegally.”
Most federal judges criticize mandatory minimums, perhaps unsurprisingly since the laws are intended to withdraw discretion from “lenient” judges. In reality, such laws simply transfer a judges’ power to prosecutors, who control what charges are filed and threaten draconian sentences to force plea bargains. Prosecutors use that discretion inconsistently. Fewer than half of all defendants charged for crimes covered by mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania receive them.
Last week, the NRA also touted a law-and-order solution of armed cops in every school, arguing that “only a good guy with a gun” can take on the “unknown number of genuine monsters” and “the much larger, more lethal criminal class.”
In NRA-land, America’s basic problems are caused by a horde of irredeemable sociopaths who must be either jailed or killed.
The problem is, this mindset utterly fails to address factors that drive young men in this city to carry and use guns. Harsh sentences won’t bring back to life the 327 Philadelphians murdered so far this year.
We must think more carefully about what sort of gun control we want. This sentencing free-for-all has succeeded in only one thing: making the United States, which pretends to be a beacon for freedom, the most incarcerated place on earth.