There's Always Room to Be Tougher on Crime


Today the House of Representatives is expected to pass the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act, part of the congressional response to January's Supreme Court decision making federal sentencing guidelines advisory. Many of the provisions deal with violent crimes, but Families Against Mandatory Minimums points out at least two that would increase penalties for drug offenders.

The bill would increase the mandatory minimum sentence for possessing or carrying a firearm in connection with drug trafficking from five to seven years (a penalty that currently is triggered only if the weapon is "brandished"). It also would make anyone involved in a drug trafficking conspiracy subject to the extra sentence if someone else who played a role in the conspiracy had a gun.

I assume one goal of the special firearm penalties is to reduce violence by discouraging drug dealers from carrying guns. But it's the war on drugs that encourages them to be armed in the first place. First the government creates a black market; then it penalizes people who defend themselves against the violence that inevitably accompanies black markets.

In any case, the combination of drug laws and anti-gun provisions already produces outrageously onerous sentences, even for people who own guns but never fire or brandish them. Each time a defendant carries a gun counts as a separate offense; second and subsequent offenses are subject to a 25-year mandatory minimum; and the sentences are served consecutively. It's hard to see the rationale for the proposed change, even from the perspective of a hardline drug warrior. If the idea is that sentences can never be too long, why only a two-year increase? Why not double the sentence, or triple it? Why not consecutive life sentences? Presumably because that would leave no room for future penalty increases aimed at proving legislators' toughness on crime.