Why maximal enforcement of federal gun laws is not always a good idea

A common trope of many Second Amendment advocates is to urge more vigorous enforcement of existing federal gun control laws, as the alternative to enacting additional laws. Rhetorically, that’s very effective. But as a policy matter, it is not always a good idea. Consider legislation recently considered by the Senate:

The Manchin-Toomey amendment was supported by the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA), although the group later dropped its support for reasons unrelated to the issues raised in this post. Section 102(3) of Manchin-Toomey was the finding that “Congress believes the Department of Justice should prosecute violations of background check requirements to the maximum extent of the law.”

The alternative to Manchin-Toomey was the Grassley-Cruz substitute, which was supported by the National Rifle Association. Grassley-Cruz had a much more detailed program, with supporting funding, to increase federal prosecutions for violations of 18 U.S. Code 922 (the section which defines most of the prohibited acts by persons who are not licensed firearms dealers) and section 924 (the penalties section, with penalties for the various offenses by licensed dealers and by other persons, as well as definitions of some additional crimes). The beefed-up enforcement is in pages 15-26 of Grassley-Cruz.

Both Manchin-Toomey and Grassley-Cruz included a variety of other changes in federal gun laws, and some of them were very constructive. But as for the prosecution provisions, I think they were dubious.

To begin with, much of what is in section 922 is possessory offenses, occurring entirely within a single state. Supposedly, these provisions are enacted under Congress’s power “to regulate Commerce…among the several States.” I realize that Supreme Court since 1937 has usually been reluctant to rule that a federal criminal statute is outside the interstate commerce power. However, that judicial deference to congressional statutes is premised on the notion that Congress itself has carefully considered the constitutionality of a statute. Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland expressly discussed this point (regarding the Necessary and Proper Clause). President Andrew Jackson’s subsequent veto of the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States cited the McCulloch opinion to make his point that the political branches must exercise their own constitutional judgment; that a deferential court has not stricken a particular type of law does not excuse Congress and the President from the task of making their own judgments about whether a particular bill is constitutional.

During the latter 20th century, the Supreme Court was fairly reticent about the meaning of the Second Amendment, but many legislators and citizen activists opposed particular anti-gun bills because they believed that such bills violated the Second Amendment. Even when there was no realistic prospect that the Supreme Court would strike down a federal law on Second Amendment grounds (e.g., in 1975), it was legitimate for legislators and citizens to oppose a bill because of Second Amendment scruples.

Accordingly, it is equally legitimate to oppose a bill today because of Commerce Clause scruples. I believe that Justice Thomas’s concurrence in Printz v. United States raised a useful question. While he joined the majority opinion (Congress cannot order local law enforcement to carry out federal background checks), he also wondered if Congress’s power over interstate commerce really permitted Congress to prescribe how a firearms retailer in one state would sell an item to a consumer in that same state. A fortiori, there are even more serious questions about federal laws regarding the mere possession of firearms intrastate, or setting conditions for firearms transactions among two people in a single state, neither of whom is engaged in interstate commerce. (The Federal Firearms Licensee is, at least, someone who is actively engaged in commerce, and who frequently receives firearms in interstate commerce, even though his subsequent sales may be only intrastate.)

Many of the provisions of sections 922 and 924 which apply to purely intrastate and non-commercial activity might well be legitimate subjects of state legislation. For example, every state has laws against gun possession by convicted felons.

But not everything in 922 would be a good idea for any level of government, and a blanket increase in enforcement of all of 922 would harm innocent people. For example, 18 U.S.C. 922(x) bans handgun possession by persons under 18. There are certain exceptions to the prohibition, but they require “the prior written approval of the juvenile’s parent or legal guardian.” Now in the United States, do you think that when 17-year-olds on a ranch take a handgun with them in the pick-up truck to go check on the cattle at night, that their parents have given them “prior written approval”?

Lack-of-written-permission prosecutions under 922(x) are close to nil, and they ought to stay that way. Demanding more 922 prosecutions could have the unintended effect of giving U.S. Attorneys and BATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) agents an incentive to boost their numbers by bringing such cases.

Or let’s consider the call for greater prosecutions of people who fail the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), when they try to buy a gun in a store. The vast majority of such situations do not result in a prosecution. Is it possible that some more of them should? Yes, to the extent that some of these people are genuinely dangerous. However, I suggest that the reason that many people submit to a background check in the first place–sometimes waiting hours or days for the FBI or its state counterpart to conduct the “instant” check, is that they have no idea that they are a prohibited person.

For example, in 1979, a young man gets in a loud argument and shoving-match with his live-in girlfriend. The neighbors in the apartment next door are annoyed by the clamor, and they call the police. The young man spends a night in jail, pleads guilty to disturbing the peace, and pays a $100 fine. He may have actually been innocent, since the girlfriend shoved first. But the cost of hiring a lawyer to take the case to trial was more than he could afford. Thereafter, he stays out of trouble. He buys a gun in 1985. In 1994, when his state (let’s say it’s Virginia) now has a functioning instant check system, he buys another gun, and is duly approved. In 1996, Congress changes the law to prohibit gun possession by domestic violence misdemeanants, and make the prohibition retroactive to misdemeanors from before 1996. 18 U.S. Code 922(g)(9).

By 2013, BATFE has scoured state records of misdemeanor convictions, and decided which cases it will classify as “domestic violence.” So now the man is on the FBI’s prohibited persons list. When he tries to buy a gun in 2013, he is rejected. You can argue the pros and cons of whether he ought to be prohibited, but to me, it seems very unfair for him to be prosecuted for a federal felony.

There are many, many other examples of people who can be prohibited persons without realizing it. The Iraq War veteran who received some mental health benefits, and then the Veterans Administrations gave his name (and the names of thousands of other similar veterans) to the FBI. The woman who is a lawful user of medical marijuana pursuant to her state law, and did not know that the federal government had obtained the state list of persons with medical marijuana cards.

For above examples, it is really not a problem that no federal prosecution results when they fail the NICS check.

To the extent that federal incentives is meant to drive up the numbers for prosecutions of 922 in general, some of these people would be prosecuted even if they were not attempting to buy a gun. Perhaps one of them is driving home from a day at the target range, and a police officer pulls them over for a traffic violation, and sees the unloaded rifle in the rack of the pick-up truck. The officer runs the person’s name through the databases, and then apprehends a prohibited person in possession of a gun. A very easy federal felony prosecution, and the kind that would happen more often when federal incentives are trying to boost the number of cooperative state-federal prosecutions under 922.

I agree with the federal circuit cases that have held that illegal aliens do not have a Second Amendment right to possess firearms. But the fact that a law is constitutionally legitimate does not mean that maximizing prosecutions is always a good idea. For example, in United States v. Huitron-Guizar (10th Cir., 2012), the defendant had been brought to the United States when he was three years old. His sister was an American citizen, but he was not.  When he was 24 years old, he was discovered to have in his home a rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

Grassley-Cruz put its greatest efforts into increasing prosecutions for convicted felons and fugitives. These are categories for which firearms prohibition, as a general matter, is plainly allowed under District of Columbia v. Heller. However, there’s a difference between prosecuting the guy who was released from prison for armed robbery four months ago, and is found to be illegally carrying a handgun outside a liquor store — and the guy who was convicted of tax evasion or marijuana possession three decades ago, and whose home is found to contain the unloaded hunting rifle he inherited from his father one decade ago.

The National Rifle Association  and CCRKBA have quite persuasively documented the tendency of BATFE to, at least some of the time, try to boost its numbers by concentrating enforcement efforts on easy-to-prosecute technical violations, rather than on situations where there is a real danger to public safety. Enacting new laws demanding “maximal” enforcement of NICS, or trying to increase the prosecutions for 18 U.S.C 922 & 924 across the board, would be a poor use of criminal justice resources, and would inflict very excessive penalties on many people who are harmless. If proponents of increased federal prosecution can document a large number of cases which really should be prosecuted, and which are not being prosecuted, the best solution would be a new President who would appoint a BATFE Director and U.S. Attorneys who would bring the cases which really help public safety–and who would also know that not every violation of every iota of sections 922 and 924 is worth making a federal case.