After Mass Shootings, Trump says Prosecutions for Firearms Offenses hit Record in 2018

Amy Sherman, PolitiFact Texas
Houston Chronicle
August 12, 2019

The claim: “Last year, we prosecuted a record number of firearms offenses, but there is so much more that we have to do.” — President Donald Trump

Trump made the statement during a White House speech addressing mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton that left 31 people dead.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he leaves the White House on Wednesday morning, Aug. 7, 2019. Trump is to visit Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday in an attempt to deliver a message of national unity and healing to two cities scarred by mass shootings over the weekend and where many grieving residents hold him responsible for inflaming the country’s racial divisions (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times). Photo: ANNA MONEYMAKER, STR / NYT

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly true. Trump appeared to be referring to the number of defendants charged with federal firearm offenses in 2018, which the government said that was 17 percent more than the previous record. It’s important to note, however, that the vast majority of gun crimes are handled at the state level, and that the data doesn’t speak to the seriousness of the charge.

Discussion: Trump’s speech offered few specifics related to potential gun legislation he would support, although he left open the door when he said he was “ready to listen and discuss all ideas that will actually work and make a very big difference.”

The prosecution data Trump was citing came from the U.S. Department of Justice, which tracks federal prosecutions of firearm offenses.

In October 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had “smashed records” by charging more than 15,300 defendants with federal firearms offenses, 17 percent more than the previous record. The press release from the Justice Department didn’t cite the year or number for the previous record, and we were unable to reach a Justice spokesperson by deadline.

However, annual statistics from the Justice Department show criminal cases in which defendants were charged under a couple of key firearm statutes. That data shows there were 13,062 defendants charged in fiscal year 2005, the record since 2000. The Justice Department’s figure of 15,300 for 2018 represents a 17 percent increase compared to 2005.

Another source of data that is commonly cited is from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which compiles data through records requests from the federal government.

One way Syracuse crunches the numbers is by isolating on the primary charge, versus a secondary charge. Looking at it that way, researchers at Syracuse show that prosecutions were slightly higher in 2003-05 than in 2018.

The analysis also shows that federal firearm prosecutions started to rise in 2014 when Barack Obama was in office. They have continued to climb during Trump’s tenure.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a memo in March 2017 to federal prosecutors calling on them to step up prosecutions of firearm charges. A few months later, the Justice Department attributed an increase in federal prosecutions to Sessions’ memo.

A couple of other things to note:

First, the vast majority of gun crimes are handled by state courts, not federal courts, said Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. So Trump is talking about a small piece of the issue.

“Over the last 20 years, gun cases in federal courts fluctuated between 7,000 and 12,000 annually,” Butts told PolitiFact. “Meanwhile, in 2017 about 175,000 people nationwide were arrested for gun charges (possession, use in a criminal act, etc.).”

Second, part of the increase in federal gun crimes is likely due to the federalization of some crime types, Butts said. That means an increase may be related to a shift in the workload of state and federal courts more than some type of crackdown on gun crimes.

Third, the federal statistics alone don’t tell us about the seriousness of each type of case.

The New York Times reported in May 2018 that federal prosecutors have increasingly targeted low-level gun offenders, raising questions about whether the tactic is the best use of resources.

“It’s a good idea to enforce the existing gun laws,” Avery Gardiner, co-president of The Brady Campaign, which works to combat gun violence, told the New York Times. “That’s something prosecutors should do. But going only after the people who are purchasing the guns illegally is only part of the story.”

For more on the research and the conclusion, visit Politifact Texas,