Mandatory Penalties for Unlawful Carrying of Guns

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Mandatory sentencing laws, which require a mandatory penalty for

unlicensed or otherwise unlawful carrying of a firearm, seek to reduce gun

use in unpremeditated crimes by deterring the casual carrying of firearms in

public places. The best known example of laws that institute a mandatory

penalty for unlawful carrying is the Massachusetts Bartley-Fox gun law.

The Massachusetts legislature enacted the Bartley-Fox gun law, which

mandated a one-year minimum prison term for the unlicensed carrying of

firearms and a two-year sentence for crimes committed while possessing a

gun, to reduce the incidence of firearm-related crime as well as the illicit

carrying of firearms (Beha, 1977). The amendment was adopted in July

1974 and became effective beginning in April 1975. Two months prior to

the law’s effective date, a concerted campaign was launched to characterize

the impending consequences in the following terms, “If you are caught with

a gun, you will go to prison for a year and nobody can get you out” (Pierce

and Bowers, 1981:122).

While the mandatory sentence provision removed most judicial discretion

in sentencing a defendant convicted of illegally carrying a gun, the

defendant could in fact escape the 1-year sentence in a variety of ways

(Deutsch and Alt, 1977). If someone was apprehended with a firearm on his

person, the police could file a charge of illegal possession, which does not

carry a mandatory minimum, rather than a charge of illegal carrying. Later

in the process, prosecutors could also press for the lesser possession charge

regardless of the initial police charge. Judges and juries could also find the

defendant guilty of a lesser charge. As Zimring commented, “the one-year

minimum will only invoke mandatory one-year jail terms for carrying without

a license to the extent that police, prosecutors, and judges want it to

produce such results. If there is strong resistance from any single link in this

chain, the mandatory minimum can be avoided” (as quoted in Deutsch and

Alt, 1977:545).

A series of studies examined the impact of the Bartley-Fox law on gun

crime and the administration of justice in Boston. Beha (1977) examined

the daily application of the Bartley-Fox law by police, prosecutors, and

judges through simple before-after analyses of prosecutions for firearms

violations and firearm-related crimes in Boston between 1974 and 1975.

He analyzed two 6-month samples of all complaints relating to the illegal

use, possession, or carrying of a firearm for 1974 and 1975 drawn from the

dockets of Boston district courts and cross-checked against Boston Police

Department records.

His analysis suggests that Bartley-Fox made it more likely for a prison

sentence to be imposed in both firearm assault prosecutions and cases in

which illegal carrying was the most serious charge, but the law did not

affect the disposition of prosecutions for armed robbery and homicide.

Beha (1977) also found that criminal justice officials did not systematically

attempt to evade the mandatory sentence. In an analysis of yearly issuances

of firearms identification cards and licenses to carry firearms between 1970

and 1975, Beha reported that the high degree of publicity attendant on the

amendment’s passage, some of which was inaccurate, increased citizen compliance

with existing legal stipulations surrounding firearm acquisition and

possession, some of which were not in fact addressed by the amendment.

Using simple before-after analyses of percentage changes in reported crime

rates between 1970 and early 1977, Beha notes that the law did not seem to

affect armed robbery but produced definite reductions in firearm-related

assaults and firearm-related assault-homicides. However, the total number

of aggravated assaults remained constant over time, suggesting a shift from

guns to less lethal weapons.

Other studies suggest that criminal justice practitioners may have hindered

the implementation of the Bartley-Fox law. In interviews with Boston

police officers, Carlson (1982) found that 89 percent of the officers interviewed

reported becoming more selective about whom to frisk for weapons,

as they did not want to arrest someone who was otherwise a lawabiding

citizen. The National Institute of Justice also reports that, between

1974 and 1976, arrests in gun incidents decreased by 23 percent, while

weapons seizures without arrest increased by 120 percent. While it is unclear

whether the number of guns seized without arrest increased in tandem

with all weapons seizures, these figures suggest that police may have made

fewer gun-carrying arrests to evade the law.

Rossman et al. (1980) found that Bartley-Fox impeded the flow of

cases through the criminal justice system, as defendants had no incentive to

plead guilty. They found that the rate at which gun-carrying cases went to

trial tripled, the conviction rate was halved, and the median time to disposition

doubled. Dismissals and not-guilty verdicts doubled, suggesting that

judges may have been avoiding the imposition of the mandatory sentence

for some defendants. Rossman and his colleagues (1980) also found that,

while a smaller fraction of gun-carrying defendants were convicted of felony

gun-carrying, the fraction that received prison sentences did increase. These

shifts in case processing and the discretionary actions of criminal justice

practitioners in Massachusetts are common responses to the adoption of

mandatory sentences (see, e.g., Alschuler, 1978).

Pierce and Bowers (1981) used interrupted-time-series techniques and

multiple control group comparisons to examine the impact of Bartley-Fox

on firearm-related and nonfirearm-related assaults, robbery, and homicide

in Boston. They found a statistically significant reduction in gun

assaults in March 1975, one month prior to the implementation of the

Bartley-Fox law. The authors suggest that the vigorous publicity campaign

influenced behavior before the law actually went into effect. The

multiple control group comparison consisted of simple percentage change

analyses of firearm-related crime rates in 1974 and 1975 for Boston relative

to other New England cities, the United States without Massachusetts,

the middle Atlantic states, the north central states, and selected

cities within a 750-mile radius, including Washington, DC, Baltimore,

New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit. Pierce and Bowers

(1981) found that the law significantly reduced firearm-related assaults,

but produced offsetting increases in nonfirearm-related armed assaults;

there was some reduction in firearm-related robberies accompanied by a

lesser increase in nonfirearm-related armed robberies; and firearm-related

homicides were reduced with no increase in nonfirearm-related homicides.

They conclude that the law, in the short term, may have deterred

some individuals from carrying or using their firearms, but it did not

prevent them from substituting alternative weapons.

Using similar methods, Deutsch and Alt (1977) analyzed police reports

of firearm-related assaults, homicide (all types), and armed robbery (including

other weapons) for the time period January 1966 through October

1975. The evaluation was designed to detect short-term impacts of the law,

as it only included a six-month horizon after the enactment of the law.

Deutsch and Alt found a statistically significant 18 percent decrease in gun

assaults and a statistically significant 20 percent decrease in armed robberies,

but no statistically significant changes in homicide incidents. Hay and

McCleary (1979) reanalyzed Deutsch and Alt’s data and suggest that the

stochastic components of the time series were not specified correctly and

the postintervention time series was too short to permit an accurate specification

of the intervention component. Hay and McCleary suggest that the

Deutsch and Alt findings are inconclusive. In a rejoinder, Deutsch (1979)

critiques the ARIMA model specification choices made by Hay and

McCleary in their reanalysis and comments that their research was

“wrought with inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and half truths” (p. 327).

In their analysis of the Deutsch and Alt data, Berk and his colleagues

(1979) conclude that the law reduced armed robbery, had mixed effects on

firearm-related assaults, and had no effects on homicides. In his later analysis,

Deutsch (1981) expanded the time series through September 1977 and

found that the Bartley-Fox law produced significant reductions in homicide,

firearm-related assaults, and armed robbery. The broader methodological

lesson learned from this exchange was that identifying appropriate

models for evaluation purposes can be a very subjective exercise. As Kleck

(1997) suggests, “Experts in [time series] modeling also commonly point

out difficulties that even experienced practitioners have in specifying time

series models. Specification is very much an art rather than a science, so

that different researchers, using the same body of data, can make substantially

different, even arbitrary, specification decisions, and, as a result, obtain

sharply different results” (p. 354).

Indeed, with such dissimilar findings, it is difficult to specify the effects

of the Bartley-Fox law on firearm-related crime. Collectively, this body of

research seems to suggest a broad impact on gun crime in Boston. However,

it is unclear whether the firearms sentencing enhancement or the mandatory

sentence for illegal gun-carrying generated the impact. Kleck (1991)

observes that, if one accepts that the Bartley-Fox law worked as a whole, it

is risky to infer that other gun-carrying laws would also work, since it may

have been a unique constellation of factors in the Boston setting that was

responsible for the effect.

Conclusion

Punishment enhancements for firearm-related crimes seem to be justified

in sentencing by seriousness considerations, since firearms use in violent

crimes increases the likelihood of the victim’s death (Cook and Nagin,

1979). Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that there should be an

incapacitation effect, since gun offenders usually persist in their choice of

using a firearm in subsequent crimes (Cook and Nagin, 1979). However,

the available research evidence on the deterrent effects of firearms sentencing

enhancements on firearm-related crime is mixed, with city-level studies

suggesting reductions in firearm-related homicides and possibly other types

of firearm-related crime in urban settings (McDowall et al., 1992), as well

as nationwide studies suggesting no crime prevention effects at the state

level (Marvell and Moody, 1995).

The committee recommends more rigorous study of firearms sentencing

enhancement laws at the city level. As Kleck (1997) suggests, state-level

analyses suffer from aggregation bias, and lumping heterogeneous jurisdictions

into one area could conceal potentially important causal effects at

lower levels of aggregation. City-level studies need to engage more rigorous

methods, such as pooled time-series, cross-sectional studies that allow the

detection of short-term impacts while controlling for variation in violence

levels both across different areas and different times.