The most horrifying experience a citizen can have is to stare down the barrel of a gun held by a violent criminal.
But under President Obama, federal prosecutors in two of the nation's most crime-ridden cities have taken vastly different paths to address the threat.
In the Southern District of Alabama, U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown has been working with agents at the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local law enforcement officials to relentlessly lock up known bad guys for a minimum of five years on federal arms charges.
The Southern District — which includes Mobile, Alabama, a city with one of the highest crime rates per capita in the country — has pursued the most federal weapons prosecutions this year, according to prosecution data analyzed by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Under Mr. Brown's leadership, the jurisdiction is prosecuting 24 percent more cases than last year and has increased prosecutions 69 percent in the last five years. In 2008, the year before the effort started, there were 42 homicides in his district. Last year, there were 27, Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Brown is bucking a nationwide trend, which has seen a decrease in the number of federally prosecuted gun charges, the data show.
"We told local law enforcement, 'Look, if you have someone who has been a thorn in your side, they tend to go in and out of the revolving door of prison. You can't get anything to stick to them, and they carry a gun. We want to prosecute them,'" Mr. Brown told The Washington Times.
His aim is to clean up the streets of Mobile by deterring criminals from carrying weapons so that if a street fight escalates, participants are using their fists, not pulling out Glocks.
Mr. Brown's counterpart in the gang-weary city of Chicago has a vastly different philosophy. U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declared in his first interview after taking over his job that "we are not going to arrest our way out of the gang problem in Chicago," adding, "I do not believe federal law enforcement is the panacea" to gun violence.
Mr. Fardon's declaration caught the attention of many in Chicago, which reported the most murders of any U.S. city in 2012 and is on track to retain that title in 2013, according to the most recent FBI data. Although statistics from the Chicago Police Department show the murder rate has subsided this year, over the Fourth of July weekend, 82 people were shot within an 84-hour window in a surge of violence, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Mr. Fardon's philosophy appears to be borne out in the statistics compiled by his federal prosecution team in Chicago.
Chicago ranked last in federal gun-law enforcement in terms of weapons crimes per capita, out of the 90 U.S. court districts monitored by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse in its most recent study.
This year, the city is on track to prosecute about 50 weapons charges, the lowest number since 2007. Compare that to Mobile, which is expected to prosecute 105 gun cases, or New York City, which is projected to prosecute 125 this year, and the number looks demonstratively worse.
Mr. Fardon declined to be interviewed by The Washington Times.
But Randy Samborn, an assistant U.S. attorney and spokesperson for the Northern District of Illinois, said part of the reason why Chicago's prosecution numbers are low is because of staff attrition and hiring freezes due to the budget sequestration deal back in Washington in early 2013.
"We've suffered an attrition of 20 attorneys since 2012, and we've only gotten over the budget hurdle this year and have been beginning to hire them back," Mr. Samborn said. "Some say you can do more with less, then it's the same with less, but after a point in time, you simply can't do as much with less."
Also, unlike Alabama, which has lighter gun laws than the federal government, Illinois has some of the strictest gun laws nationwide, and many times criminals are better prosecuted under state jurisdictions than federal, Mr. Samborn explained.
Ideology and interests
The divergent approaches of Mobile and Chicago highlight an often-overlooked truism in federal law enforcement: that the ideology and parochial interests of a local U.S. attorney often can trump the promises and agenda of their bosses back in Washington.
President Obama vowed after the Newtown and Aurora mass shootings to step up in enforcement of the nation's gun laws, but in fact the data from U.S. attorneys offices nationwide show prosecution of ATF cases has declined by 25 percent on his watch.
Local law enforcement and citizens in the two cities are acutely aware of the impact of their federal prosecutors' approach.
"Mr. Brown helped us streamline the adoption of these cases from the state agencies to federal agencies to prosecute our most violent offenders, and it sticks. Federal prosecution is better, with more certainty of conviction," said Sam Cochran, Mobile's local sheriff. "But the county level and the city maintain an aggressive approach. We do the detective work, paperwork, make sure we're dealing with a convicted felon with a record, write up the case and then take it to the ATF and U.S. attorney.
"Down south, we have hot tempers and may be inclined to draw guns a little faster," Mr. Cochran said. "Anything we can do to keep these guns a little further away — to deter hotheaded violence — is a good thing."
Not only do officials advertise to criminals that if they get caught with a gun, it's a federal offense and they will be going to jail, but Mr. Brown has also been working with faith-based partners to find reentry programs for convicts coming out of federal prison so they don't get caught up in criminal activity once released.
Mr. Brown personally tries to find jobs and then recommends convicts, who come out of jail, for positions in Southern Alabama's maritime industry.
"I've got a hammer or a job. It's up to them to decide," Mr. Brown explained. "My duty is to protect the community; it's my ultimate goal."
In Chicago, Mr. Fardon seems reluctant to use his hammer, instead focusing on prevention.
"The hammer of incarceration — it has its time and its place," Mr. Fardon said in his interview with reporters last November. "But you also have to be creative and open to finding ways to deter crime and prevent violent crime from happening."
Meanwhile, local police in Chicago seem to be spinning their wheels.
"At the end of the day, it's like running on a hamster wheel [while] we're drinking from a fire hose [in] seizing these guns, and people are coming right back out on the street," Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said in April on the heels of a weekend that saw at least 37 people shot. "They're not learning that carrying a firearm is going to have a severe impact on what's happening in their lives."
In Chicago, academics seems to back Mr. Fardon's view that the city's crime scourge can't be solved by arrests alone.
Among the gun-crime studies done at the university level, none can draw clear links between a higher rate of federal gun prosecutions and a lower rate for violent crimes. Case in point was Project Exile, run out of Richmond, Virginia, in the late 1990s, where federal prosecutors aggressively went after gun offenses in an effort to clean up the streets.
The project's success spurred copycat initiatives in Philadelphia, Rochester and Stockton, California, and is a model for what's going on in Alabama. In all of those jurisdictions, while the program was active, local officials credited the initiative for lowering crime rates by deterring criminals from carrying weapons.
"The best evidence we have on whether federal prosecutions result in lower crime rates comes out of Richmond, and that record is somewhat mixed," said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "High-quality evaluations point in both directions, but the weight of the evidence suggests there's no direct link between higher federal action and lower crime rates."
Mr. Kennedy cited crime fluctuations — Project Exile debuted when Richmond was at a crime peak — so, naturally, crime rates would eventually come down and not be related to the increased vigilance on guns.
Also, dealing with gun crimes is a state issue, typically not dealt with at the federal level.
District court judges attacked Project Exile, criticizing it as "a substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority and responsibility."
Still, for those on the ground in Richmond, it didn't hurt.
"I'm not a statistician, but what I can tell you is that no one can prove it wasn't effective," said a U.S. attorney, who worked on Project Exile but was unauthorized to speak on the record. "These felons — they were scared to death of federal time. To say this effort had no effect on them is to presume they are stupid people — and they're not. They're doing the same cost-benefit analysis everybody else does. Now that a gun had a cost, they were leaving it at home — or at least not [keeping it] on their person — so it was harder to use in the heat of the moment. Criminals told us that."
Mobile's Mr. Cochran agrees. Going after gun crimes with a federal stick deters criminal acts.
"It clearly works," Mr. Cochran said. "There's people walking our streets right now alive because of it. I don't care what the stats say — we know."
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