A new report on federal firearm offenses shows that the vast majority involve illegal possession, often without aggravating circumstances or a history of violence, Reuters reports. The data undermines the assumption that people who violate gun laws are predatory criminals who pose a serious threat to public safety. They also highlight the racially disproportionate impact of such laws, which is especially troubling given their excessive breadth. In FY 2021, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) reports that 89 percent of federal firearm offenders were legally disqualified from owning guns, typically because of a felony record. Half of those cases involved "aggravating criminal conduct." But in the other half, the defendant's "status as a prohibited person solely formed the basis of the conviction." The aggravating conduct, which triggered sentencing enhancements under the USSC's guidelines, covered a wide range. In 11 percent of the cases involving aggravating conduct, "an offender or co-participant discharged a firearm." In 4 percent, someone was killed while in 18 percent someone was injured. Some cases involved a stolen gun, a gun with an "altered or obliterated serial number," or a prohibited weapon, such as a machine gun or a sawed-off shotgun. Some defendants were engaged in gun trafficking. In more than a quarter of the cases, "the firearm facilitated, or had the potential to facilitate, another felony offense." That last category would include drug dealers who never threatened or injured anyone but kept or carried guns for self-defense.
Overall, 61 percent of firearm offenders had been convicted of violent crimes. Assault was the most common offense, accounting for almost 50 percent of prior convictions. Robbery was the next most common offense, followed by "other violent" crimes, homicide, and rape. Many of these defendants surely posed a continuing threat to public safety. But the federal prohibition of gun possession by people with felony records is a lifetime ban except in rare cases where people manage to have their Second Amendment rights restored. That policy, which threatens violators with up to 15 years in prison, is hard to justify unless you assume that people convicted of violent crimes cannot be rehabilitated and do not change their ways as they mature. That assumption does not seem reasonable in light of research indicating that recidivism declines sharply with age. The irrationality of this policy is more prominent when considering the demographics of federal firearm offenders. In FY 2021, 55 percent of them were Black, and 2019 FBI data showed that African Americans, who represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 42 percent of arrests for weapon offenses. Such disparities are not surprising, but the upshot is that the burdens of excessively broad restrictions on gun ownership are concentrated in that segment of the population.