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Sentencing Enhancements for Firearm-Related Crimes

Firearms sentence enhancement laws mandate minimum sentences or

extra prison time for felonies committed with firearms. Unlike most gun

control measures, enhanced prison penalties for firearm-related crimes have

widespread support from all sides of the firearms policy debate. Firearms

sentence enhancements do not affect the ability of law-abiding citizens to

keep firearms for recreation or self-defense and have the potential to reduce

firearm-related violence by incapacitating those who have been convicted

of firearm-related crimes and deterring future firearms crimes. Although a

recent rigorous research study suggests that sentence enhancements can

result in modest crime reductions (Kessler and Levitt, 1999), the evidence

on the effects of sentencing enhancements on firearm-related crime is less


In their examination of the case for a gun-emphasis policy in the prosecution

of violent offenders, Cook and Nagin (1979) conclude that firearms

use in robbery and assault deserves stiffer punishment because it increases

the chance of the victim’s death. In their analysis of case information, Cook

and Nagin found that, while there was little difference in recidivism rates

between gun users and those using other weapons in Washington, DC,

criminals who used a gun in one crime were more likely to be rearrested for

a firearm-related crime. Finally, they also found that, in Washington during

the mid-1970s, there was little distinction in prosecution and sentencing

between firearm-related crime defendants and other-weapon-related defendants

when controlling for other characteristics of the case. Apparently,

prosecutors had a “weapons” emphasis, but not a “gun” emphasis.

Several small-scale studies suggest that sentencing enhancements for firearm-

related crimes might reduce some types of crimes. The results of these

studies, however, are sometimes difficult to interpret. For example, McPheters

and his colleagues (1984) used interrupted-time-series analyses to evaluate

the effects of Arizona’s 1974 firearms sentencing enhancement law. They

found highly significant reductions in firearm-related robberies in Pima and

Maricopa counties and no significant firearm-related robbery reductions in

five southwestern cities outside Arizona that did not pass similar laws during

the study time period used as controls. This impact on firearm-related robberies,

however, may have been due to regression to the mean, as Arizona

experienced a 75 percent increase in firearm-related robberies in the two

years prior to the passage of the law (McPheters et al., 1984).

1Two National Research Council reports (1978, 1993) explicitly address the deterrent

effects of penalties. Both conclude that the likely effects of manipulations of the severity of

penalties are fairly small.

Loftin and McDowall (1981) examined the effects of a Michigan firearms

law that required a 2-year mandatory sentence for felonies committed

while in possession of a firearm on the certainty and severity of sentences

and on the number of serious violent crimes in Detroit. A substantial media

campaign announcing that “One With a Gun Gets You Two” preceded the

law’s going into effect in January 1977, and the Detroit prosecutor adopted

a strict policy of not plea bargaining such cases down to lesser charges.

Their examination of cases processed though the Detroit Recorder’s Court

between 1976 and 1978 found little change in the certainty or severity of

sentences for firearm-related murders and armed robberies, but they did

find that there was a significant increase in the expected sentence for firearms-

related assault cases that could be attributed to the firearms law.

Similarly, in their examination of California’s firearms sentencing enhancement

law, Lizotte and Zatz (1986) found little difference in prison

sentences given to firearm-related criminals in California, except when defendants

had three or more prior arrests. Loftin and McDowall (1981)

evaluated the crime control effects of the Michigan firearms law, again

using time-series analysis, and found no significant reductions in armed

robbery or firearm-related assaults in Detroit. They did find a significant

reduction in firearm-related homicides but concluded that the overall results

best fit a model in which the firearms law had no preventive effects on

crime. A later analysis by Loftin et al. (1983) affirmed these conclusions.

The Florida Felony Firearm Law mandated a 3-year prison sentence for

anyone possessing a firearm while committing or attempting to commit any

of 11 specified felonies. Using time-series analysis models, Loftin and

McDowall (1984) examined the effects of the October 1975 Florida firearms

law on firearm-related homicides, armed robberies, and firearm-related

assaults in Miami, Tampa, and Jacksonville. To reduce any historical

effects, nonfirearm-related homicides, unarmed robberies, and knife assaults

were used as control time series. Loftin and McDowall (1984) did

not find any significant reductions in firearm-related crime in Jacksonville

and Miami associated with the passage of the gun law. They did, however,

find a significant decrease in firearm-related homicides and a significant

increase in firearm-related assaults in Tampa. While they recommend further

testing and examination of the data, Loftin and McDowall (1984)

tentatively concluded that the Florida firearms law did not have a measurable

deterrent effect on violent crime. In a later paper, McDowall et al.

(1992) pooled the Detroit, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami time series

with data collected from a study examining the effects of Pennsylvania’s

1982 firearm sentencing enhancement law on violent crime in Pittsburgh

and Philadelphia. They found that these two cities showed significant reductions

in homicide associated with the passage of the law. The pooled

results led McDowall and his colleagues (1992) to very different concluCRIMINAL

sions from the city-level studies. The authors found that mandatory sentencing

laws significantly reduced the number of homicides, but the effects

of mandatory sentencing laws on assaults and robberies were inconclusive.

Nationwide studies have not found any crime prevention effects associated

with firearms sentence enhancements. Kleck (1991) conducted a crosssectional

analysis of 1980 data for 170 cities and found that the existence of

a firearms sentence enhancement law was not related to homicide, assault,

or robbery rates. However, as Marvell and Moody (1995) observe, crosssectional

designs are not suitable for studying short-term impacts, and it is

difficult to be confident that the control variables account for the numerous

differences between cities that may mask the laws’ impacts. In an attempt to

mitigate the methodological problems in earlier research studies, Marvell

and Moody (1995) conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of

firearms sentence enhancements on crime and prisons. The authors conducted

a pooled time-series, cross-sectional design analysis for nearly all

states over a period of 16 to 24 years such that, for each state, the other

states served as controls. They found little evidence to suggest that firearms

sentencing enhancements had any effects on crime rates or firearms use.

Moreover, the authors did not find any indication that these laws increased

prison admissions or prison populations.

Raphael and Ludwig (2003) observe that Richmond’s well-known

Project Exile program to deter illicit carrying of firearms by convicted

felons is essentially a firearms sentence enhancement initiative, as firearms

offenders are diverted from state to federal courts. At the heart of Project

Exile, all Richmond felon-in-possession cases are prosecuted in federal

courts, with the defendants facing a mandatory five-year prison sentence if

convicted. Project Exile also includes training for local law enforcement on

federal statutes and search and seizure procedures, a public relations campaign

to increase community involvement in fighting firearm-related crime,

and a massive advertising campaign intended to send the message of zero

tolerance for gun crime and to inform potential offenders of the swift and

certain federal sentence (Raphael and Ludwig, 2003). Advocates of the

program claim success based on a 40 percent decrease in Richmond firearm-

related homicides between 1997 and 1998.

In their evaluation of Project Exile, Raphael and Ludwig (2003) found

that the decline in Richmond firearm-related homicides would have been

likely to occur even in the absence of the program. The authors revealed

that nearly all of the reduction in Richmond firearm-related homicides

associated with Project Exile may be attributable to an unusually high level

of and increase in firearm-related homicide prior to the implementation of

the program. They also found little statistical evidence of an impact between

felon-in-possession convictions and city-level homicide rates. Their

null finding is robust to a variety of methodological adjustments, including

an analysis of omitted variable bias that uses juveniles, who are generally

exempt from federal felon-in-possession charges, as an additional in-city

control group. In his subsequent analysis of the Raphael-Ludwig data,

Levitt (2003) suggests that the expectations of a large decrease in crime

associated with Project Exile were probably unrealistic, given the small

number of additional felon-in-possession convictions per year (roughly 80)

and the small increase in total punishment in Richmond (240 extra personyears

of imprisonment that would be associated with an estimated 2.5

percent reduction in crime in Richmond). Greenwood (2003) also speculates

that Project Exile did not focus sufficiently on the most dangerous

offenders associated with the bulk of firearm-related crime in Richmond.