Boy, it sure sounds like a logical idea.
If you’re a government official and you want to reduce gun violence in your community, get illegal guns off your streets by significantly increasing the penalties for weapons possession.
Criminals will be much more reluctant to possess a gun for fear of a long prison sentence. That will result in fewer people carrying guns around, and therefore fewer shootings and less violence on local streets.
That’s the theory behind Schenectady city Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas’s push for state legislation that would raise the mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession to 10 years in prison.
It would be wonderful if getting illegal guns off the street was that simple. But it’s probably not.
Such minimum sentences have been proven in other places not to be an effective solution to gun violence. And such minimums are often behind sharp increases in incarceration levels that largely fall on Black and Latin communities. So there’s a racial element to this approach.
In the city of Chicago a few years ago, a report on gun violence was prepared by a broad coalition of criminal justice and anti-violence groups, including neighborhood safety and handgun violence groups, according to the Chicago Reporter.
The report found that while gun possession is a contributor to gun violence, it’s wrong to assume all people who possess guns are an imminent threat to fire them at someone. In reality, the report found, “only a small proportion of gun owners use them against other people,” making gun possession by itself a nonviolent crime.
Regardless, Chicago boosted penalties for possession that in some cases were tougher than those brought against people who actually committed violent crimes.
The report also concluded that criminal penalties for non-violent possession seldom increase public safety, and instead will “increase offenders’ contact with higher-risk offenders, strain families and create economic devastation in communities.” Non-violent offenders sent to prison, the report stated, become exposed to high-risk offenders, and when released are deprived of employment or educational opportunities, leading to poverty and more crime.
Also, it found, young people are less likely to be deterred by tougher penalties, but will be impacted more significantly by imprisonment. One study even questioned whether many criminals were even aware of the minimum sentences, making it difficult to argue for using them as a deterrent.
Baltimore, another city with high gun violence, had a similarly disappointing experience with minimum sentences.
Yet another study found judges sometimes offset the higher minimum sentences by shaving the sentences for related crimes.
None of this is to say the city and state shouldn’t continue to pursue ways to reduce gun violence and to get illegal guns out of the hands of criminals.
But before pushing for this one solution, Schenectady officials should study whether it really would be an effective deterrent and look for other ways to solve the problem.