Richard Reid was already a two-time felon when authorities searched his Delaware apartment and found marijuana, crack cocaine divided into sales-size plastic bags, powder cocaine, a scale — and a loaded .32 caliber handgun, an unloaded .25 caliber pistol and ammunition for two other types of weapons.
Last week, President Obama commuted Reid’s 25-year sentence and made him one of the hundreds of drug users and dealers who the White House says have done enough time.
But at the same time, Mr. Obama forgave scores of gun crimes convictions for the offenders, raising thorny questions about whether the White House is serious about keeping guns out of “the wrong hands” — a refrain of the Obama administration in the wake of mass shootings.
Mr. Obama forgave six of Reid’s gun crimes, in addition to the drug trafficking and possession offenses for which he was convicted in 2007.
He is one of 107 federal inmates who have had gun crimes convictions pardoned or sentences commuted during this administration, including a number who used firearms while dealing drugs or who carried them despite having felonies on their records. Still others were caught lying to gun dealers or carrying weapons with the registration numbers filed off — suggesting an even deeper level of gun crime.
“This is the most incredible hypocrisy,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. “The president has commuted the sentences of dangerous criminals who were convicted of gun-related charges. But then, he does everything in his power to block law-abiding gun owners from purchasing firearms.”
Mr. Obama has set modern records for clemency, reducing or canceling sentences for more than 600 federal inmates, more than his nine predecessors going back to John F. Kennedy combined. Thousands of other petitions are pending, and the White House has promised to continue on its path.
The goal, the president and his advisers say, is to free the federal prisons of nonviolent offenders who have ties to their communities and for whom time in prison is a waste.
“Our focus really has been on people who we think were overcharged and people who we do not believe have a propensity towards violence,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference last week, highlighting the decisions he is making on gun charges.
He held up a hypothetical case of a teenager in a gang who was caught with drugs and a gun, never used the weapon but ended up with a decadeslong sentence because of mandatory minimums, saying that man should get leniency.
“And in that situation, the fact that he had 20 years earlier an enhancement because he had a firearm is different than a situation where somebody has engaged in armed robbery and shot somebody. In those cases, that is still something that I’m concerned about,” Mr. Obama said.
Many of the cases in which Mr. Obama granted leniency, though, fall somewhere in between, with the culprit a repeat felon for whom the mere possession of a gun was a crime, and carrying it while dealing drugs was even worse in the eyes of the law.
Guns and drugs became linked in the criminal justice system in the 1990s, when drug-fueled violence peaked. A quarter of those arrested on drug charges reported carrying a firearm all or most of the time — usually because of the nature of the illegal transaction, the lack of trust between dealers and customers, and the fact that both parties were more likely to take matters into their own hands rather than go to police to settle a dispute.
Prosecutors said they could even predict the pace of drugs- and gun-crimes arrests: They spiked at the beginning and middle of each month, which corresponded with the arrival of drug-buyers’ government checks.
But as the violence of the 1990s continues to fade, activists are turning their attention to those still in prison based on laws from the “war on drugs” era. Groups that campaign against mandatory minimum sentences say the problem is the law’s requirement that gun sentences be “stacked,” or run consecutively, rather than concurrently, with the drug charges.
That means someone who faces a five-year drug sentence with a five-year add-on for carrying a weapon could serve 10 years for the same crime.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a leading prisoner advocacy group, says the laws should be rewritten to allow judges to have sentences for gun crimes run concurrently with the drug crimes, and to apply the stiffest penalties only for true recidivists.
Congress has stalemated over criminal justice reform, and Mr. Obama has acted on his own, using his clemency powers under the Constitution to offer relief where he can. He has even asked prisoners sentenced under strict 1990s-era laws to file applications if they think they deserve leniency.
Most applications are rejected, but hundreds of prisoners have been granted pardons or commutations. Of those, three pardons covered gun crimes and 104 people with gun convictions have had their sentences commuted.
Among them was Reid, the Delaware man and two-time offender whose apartment was stoked with guns and ammunition.
Also granted leniency was Artis Sangria McGraw, a two-time felon who was nabbed in 2001 as part of a federal-local task force specifically aimed at prosecuting gun crimes. He was caught dealing drugs in a neighborhood of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and had a loaded .38 caliber revolver — with the serial number obliterated.
Others included Kenneth H. Smith, convicted of lying to a firearms dealer; Carolyn Yvonne Butler, convicted of three counts of armed bank robbery; and Robert Joe Young, whose convictions included use of a gun while trafficking drugs and obstruction of justice.
Young was arrested with more than 3 pounds of methamphetamine, was already on probation when he was arrested again, was deemed by local law enforcement to be a major drug supplier to his area and had 40 guns, according to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which represents rank-and-file federal prosecutors.
“Our position has long been that drug trafficking is an inherently violent offense and neither should be receiving the benefit of any extraordinary relief like clemency,” said Steve Cook, president of the association.
The Washington Times asked the White House about several of the cases that seem to contradict the president’s commitment to stopping guns, but a White House official said only that the president takes each case individually.
“As a general matter, the president does not condone violence of any kind. But, he also believes that individuals who have truly paid their debt to society and demonstrated a commitment to not repeating past mistakes should be given a chance to earn their freedom,” the official said.
The official said the president’s commutations don’t lift the ban on possessing a firearm for those about to be released — though dozens of felons granted commutations had previously been charged for illegally possessing a firearm.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said offering a second, third or fourth chance for gun-wielding criminals stood in contrast to Mr. Obama’s actions to make buying weapons more difficult for law-abiding owners.
“On one hand, the Obama administration is attempting to limit law-abiding Americans from exercising their Second Amendment right and protecting themselves from harm,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican. “On the other hand, the president will let criminals with firearm-related offenses off easy.”
Gun control groups, which are fighting for stricter laws on gun ownership, don’t have as much of a problem with Mr. Obama’s leniency, saying their focus is less on the gun users and more on those buying and selling the weapons at the front end.
“Our organizational priority is keeping guns out of the hands of prohibited purchasers in the first place,” said Brendan Kelly, press secretary for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “We feel that starts by expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales and by cracking down on so-called ‘bad apple’ gun dealers who skirt the law and best practices. We believe that the federal government’s greatest opportunity to reduce gun violence and increase public safety lies in these two approaches.”
For gun rights advocates, though, Mr. Obama’s moves are more complicated. While some activists see hypocrisy by the White House, others are skeptical of the prosecutors who may have won the cases in the first case.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said each case needs to be judged on its own merits, but he added that people can be convicted of trumped-up gun charges.
“Some of our firearms laws are actually pretty stupid, and you can be convicted of something that’s really not dangerous at all,” he said. “You’ve had some infraction that really you weren’t trying to harm anybody or wouldn’t have harmed anybody, and yet it’s a felony.”
Mr. Van Cleave, for example, said simply possessing drugs wouldn’t necessarily fall into the category of a violent crime.
“On the other hand, being a drug pusher — it all gets very, very complicated quickly,” he said.
“That’s not saying that people shouldn’t be charged for breaking the law, like the guy that was selling the drugs, sure,” he said. “If the penalty for that isn’t long enough and there’s still fear when he gets out he’s going to start over again, then maybe they need to rethink the penalties.”