A new report on federal firearm offenses shows that the vast majority involve illegal possession, often without aggravating circumstances or a history of violence. The data undermine the assumption that people who violate gun laws are predatory criminals who pose a serious threat to public safety. They also highlight the racially disproportionate impact of such laws, which is especially troubling given their excessive breadth.
In FY 2021, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) reports, 89 percent of federal firearm offenders were legally disqualified from owning guns, typically because of a felony record. Half of those cases involved "aggravating criminal conduct." But in the other half, the defendant's "status as a prohibited person solely formed the basis of the conviction."
The aggravating conduct, which triggered sentencing enhancements under the USSC's guidelines, covered a wide range.
In 11 percent of the cases involving aggravating conduct, "an offender or co-participant discharged a firearm." In 4 percent of the cases where a gun was fired, someone was killed; someone was injured in 18 percent of those cases.
Some cases involved a stolen gun, a gun with an "altered or obliterated serial number," or a prohibited weapon, such as a machine gun or a sawed-off shotgun. Some defendants were engaged in gun trafficking. In more than a quarter of the cases, "the firearm facilitated, or had the potential to facilitate, another felony offense (most commonly drug trafficking)." That last category would include drug dealers who never threatened or injured anyone but kept or carried guns for self-defense.