Federal gun prosecutions, which reached a relative low late last year, have risen steadily in the months since December’s school shooting, according to the latest statistics that suggest the administration has put more effort into enforcing existing laws.
In November, the month before the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren and six adults, the federal government prosecuted 482 weapons cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University — the lowest single-month total since November 2009 and the second-lowest monthly total since President Obama took office in January 2009.
The number of prosecutions increased to slightly more than 500 in December, January and February and then shot to 673 in March and 697 in April, as Congress debated — and ultimately rejected — Mr. Obama’s call for stricter gun control laws.
“As far as I can see, there’s been no increase in the size of the agency or its legal authority,” David Burnham, co-director of TRAC, said of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “What triggered this, I don’t know. This really looks like perhaps outside criticism had an effect.”
A spokesman for the ATF, which is the chief federal agency devoted to gun crimes, could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the numbers.
The uptick is a small bright spot in the larger gun control fight for Mr. Obama, whose compromise measure to expand gun-purchase background checks, for which he vigorously pushed, collapsed in the Senate in April. Democrats have said they want to revisit the issue this year, but the chamber is tied up for the foreseeable future in a thorny debate on comprehensive immigration reform.
This year’s increase reverses a trend of falling prosecutions late last year, when TRAC’s six-month moving average of weapons cases fell from 673 in the middle of last year to 568 by the end of 2012.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, has been one of the more vocal senators in pressing the government to bring more cases.
At a Senate confirmation hearing this week for B. Todd Jones to be made permanent head of the ATF, Mr. Cruz pointed to figures from 2010, when the Department of Justice brought just 44 prosecutions out of 48,000 reported attempts to purchase firearms illegally.
In January, as part of his response to Sandy Hook, Mr. Obama nominated Mr. Jones to be ATF’s first permanent director since 2006, though Republicans are delaying his nomination over matters related to the botched Fast and Furious gun-running operation.
At the hearing this week, Mr. Jones said counting prosecutions isn’t always the best way to measure the federal government’s gun efforts.
“You are correct in that the number of folks who are prosecuted federally for what has been coined ‘lying and trying’ is a small number. But the number does not tell the story about what the department has done with armed career criminals,” Mr. Jones told Mr. Cruz. “Prosecutorial resources are thin. And there are a number of issues that U.S. attorneys across the country deal with, ranging from national security to financial frauds, and we have tough decisions to make.”
Prosecutions dipped at the beginning of the Clinton administration but rose again, tripling between 1998 and 2004, when the federal government filed more than 11,000 cases. Since then, however, prosecutions have fallen steadily to fewer than 8,000 prosecutions a year over the past three years.
Gun prosecutions require cases to be developed by investigators and charges to be filed by prosecutors. Numbers from TRAC said prosecutors turned down 38 percent of referrals in 2002 and declined 32 percent of referrals last year.
That puts much of the focus on ATF, the lead agency for developing the cases — and an agency facing issues of its own, said Mr. Jones. He told the committee that nearly one-third of the special agent community is becoming eligible for retirement.
“Our special agent community is a very experienced workforce,” Mr. Jones said. “We call it the brain drain, and we do and we are aggressively, even in the current environment, looking at that knowledge transfer. But that human capital for continuity and maintaining our current status and abilities is probably one of the biggest challenges we face over the next several years.”