Gun rights groups have singled out President Obama for failing to prosecute gun crimes, but the drop in cases filed actually began a decade ago under the Bush administration.
Analysts said the decade long drop underscores the key ingredient in gun prosecutions — a willingness to make them a priority.
Prosecutions dipped at the beginning of the Clinton administration but by 1998 had begun to rise again, tripling between then and 2004, when the federal government filed more than 11,000 cases. Since then, however, prosecutions have steadily fallen again, dipping below 8,000 prosecutions a year over the last three years.
Now, in the wake of last year's shooting spree that claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, all sides in the gun debate say they want to see the laws on the books enforced. But the experience of the last 10 years suggests that's easier said than done.
"Presidents and administrations — their priorities are based partly in their ideology and their policy interests, and to a certain extent by the issues of the day," said John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies gun policy.
Looking at trends over the last quarter century, two emerge: First, there were two annual peaks in gun prosecutions, both of them under Republican presidents, in 1992 and 2004. Second, even though prosecutions have dropped in recent years, the yearly number of gun cases is still much higher now than in the pre-9/11 era, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which tracks the numbers.
What's tougher to explain is exactly why prosecutions had a several-year spike at the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of President George W. Bush's tenure.
Mr. Hudak said the 1999 Columbine school shooting may have spurred an increase in prosecutions, and so could the spate of terrorist attacks in 1998, 2000 and, finally, the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
And David Chipman, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said some of the increase may have been due to a Justice Department program that started in 2001 and targeted gun crimes in localities across the country.
"That kind of commitment put a lot of numbers on the board," said Mr. Chipman, who works with the gun-control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "I think it worked as designed, which is to create a deterrent."
The ATF, perhaps unfairly, began to receive criticism after the increase that some of their efforts were duplicative, and officials had to re-prioritize, Mr. Chipman said.
"You can't just prosecute 20,000 cases in one year — there just isn't that infrastructure," he said. "Any kind of looking at the numbers and drawing some sort of conclusion that people are doing more or less — you've got to get beyond that. Because you could be comparing apples and oranges."
Gun prosecutions require both cases to be developed by investigators, and charges to be filed by prosecutors.
The TRAC study's numbers said prosecutors turned down 38 percent of referrals in 2002, while last year they declined 32 percent of referrals.
That puts much of the focus on ATF, the lead agency for developing the cases.
Mr. Hudak said one factor in recent decline could be the fact that ATF has been without a permanent director for six years. In January, Mr. Obama nominated acting agency director B. Todd Jones to become its permanent head, but Mr. Jones is still awaiting Senate confirmation.
"The lack of leadership has its effects on priorities," Mr. Hudak said. "And the ATF has such a diverse area of law enforcement that they have to make choices about what they prosecute."
In the wake of last year's shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun-rights groups have argued the solution is more prosecutions of gun crimes, not more restrictions on law-abiding firearms owners.
"Prosecuting criminals who misuse firearms works," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre testified to Congress earlier this year. "Unfortunately, we've seen a dramatic collapse in federal gun prosecutions in recent years That means violent felons, gang members and the mentally ill who possess firearms are not being prosecuted. And that's unacceptable."
Attorney General Eric. H. Holder Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year that prosecuting gun crimes is part of the answer and can serve as a deterrent, but that preventing people who acquire guns to commit crimes from getting them in the first place is crucial as well.
"We have limited resources and we have to try to figure out where we want to use those limited resources, and one has to look at why the gun was denied, and then make a determination whether or not we should use those limited resources to bring a prosecution against that person," Mr. Holder said, referring to people who have been denied firearms because of the FBI's National Instant Criminal Check System (NICS).
Mr. Chipman acknowledged that with different administrations' ideologies result in different priorities, which could affect the numbers, but he cautioned that drawing conclusions about causes and effects can be risky.
"You can't possibly know what those numbers mean until you layer the political environments at the time and the cases being pursued," he said.
Both Mr. Hudak and Mr. Chipman discounted one potential reason for the spike in prosecutions — the 1994 enactment of a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles. That ban ran from 1994 until its expiration in 2004, and those latter years coincide with the recent peak, which started in 1998.
But the analysts said that was likely unrelated.
"The assault weapons ban was a shell of what the original writers intended it to be," Mr. Hudak said. "I can't imagine there would be a four-year lag in the effect of the assault weapons ban on prosecutions."
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