By Julie Stewart
and Pat Nolan
Faced with an intolerable level of gun violence in Philadelphia, many legislators feel an urgency to do something to fix the problem. But the new mandatory prison sentences for illegally carrying a gun in the city are not the answer.
The bills, introduced by State Sen. Lawrence Farnese (D., Phila.) and State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), would impose a two-year minimum prison sentence on individuals caught in the city with a gun that did not belong to them. Proponents argue that this sentence is reasonable for a suspected gang member caught with an illegal gun.
But the same sentence could be imposed on a law-abiding gun owner whose license has simply expired. It could be applied to an innocent teen who learns the hard way that his parents left their legally owned and trigger-locked gun in the glove compartment of the car he borrowed.
The proposed bills, like most one-size-fits-all sentencing laws, are not flawed simply because they over-punish nonviolent individuals who commit technical violations of the law, but also because they will divert resources away from efforts proven to reduce violent crime. Wasting money on prison cells for those who don't need them will result in less money for police, prosecutors, and programs aimed at preventing gun violence.
The bills' sponsors offer no evidence that state court judges are not punishing gun-law violations adequately. Instead, they argue that the law deserves support because a similar approach worked in New York City. Farnese wrote his colleagues: "Seven years ago, New York City enacted a mandatory 31/2-year sentence for anyone convicted of illegally carrying a loaded firearm. Since the passage of this stiffer mandatory minimum sentence, violent crime in NYC has fallen significantly. For example, in 2012, murders in NYC fell . . . to 418 from 515 in 2011. This was their lowest number of murders in 40 years, with shootings falling to their lowest level in 18 years."
While New York's violent-crime drop is impressive, the murder rate there was already at its lowest in four decades before the mandatory gun law even took effect. Frank Zimring, author of The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, concluded that, in terms of reducing violent crime, the mandatory-minimum law was "beside the point."
Why did crime decline? Zimring and New York police officials credit a "hot spot" enforcement strategy, which used computer crime-tracking models to focus resources on problem areas. Aggressive policing strategies also caused historic drops in violent crime in Los Angeles and Houston, which did not adopt new gun-sentencing laws.
State leaders are right to explore all options for reducing gun violence. But if they are going to copy another jurisdiction, they should be honest about what that approach actually achieved. New gun-sentencing laws did not reduce violent crime in New York City. Keystone State legislators should not waste finite resources on mandatory minimums that do not distinguish between dangerous criminals and technical offenders.