Tag: drug war

A Round-Up of President Obama’s Gun Control Proposals

This week, President Obama announced a package of proposals with the ostensible goal of stemming gun crime in America.  Unfortunately, however, the proposals represent a mishmash of ideas that lack a solid logical nexus to the problems they’re being offered to solve.  President Obama even acknowledged this incongruity himself when he admitted that the tragic shootings he emotionally invoked would not have been prevented by his recommendations.

But faced with a Congress that fundamentally disagrees with the president’s views on gun control, his authority to act is limited, and these proposals are proof.   The full “Executive Action” plan released by the White House can be found here, but I thought it would be useful to sum up the major points.

“Engaged in the Business” of Selling Firearms

One of the primary goals of the Obama Administration has been expanding the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The president and his gun-control allies have long called for universal checks in order to close the (non-existent) “gunshow loophole,” but Congress has thus far refused to go along (and for good reason).

Still, the president gave the impression during his remarks that he would use his executive authority to expand the background check system by reconsidering what it means for people to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.  For almost 50 years, the ATF regulations have interpreted this somewhat vague phrase by distinguishing those who sell guns commercially as a means of livelihood and those non-commercial sellers who transfer the odd gun every so often. Commercial sellers are required to perform background checks through the NICS system, while non-commercial private sellers are subject to a federal statute requiring that the transferor not know or have reason to know that the recipient of the weapon is prohibited from having it. Every transfer, in other words, is currently regulated by federal law.  The only difference is which law applies.

While President Obama’s announcement and the action plan released along with it suggested a move to broaden the category of transferors that are required to put customers through the NICS system, it’s not clear that there has been any change at all.

As Jonathan Adler writes at The Washington Post, there hasn’t been  a new ATF rule issued making any substantive change to the government’s interpretation of what it means to be “engaged in the business.”  The criteria President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave for how they would be assessing whether someone is engaged in the business of selling firearms closely mirror language the ATF included in a recently issued “guidance document.” 

A Response to the New York Times Front Page Op-Ed “End The Gun Epidemic in America”

Yesterday, for the first time in 95 years, the New York Times published an op-ed on the front page, position A1, above the fold. The subject of that op-ed: “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” The piece is filled with tired arguments and moralistic fervor, and it even includes the most vacuous of all public policy arguments: We gotta do something.

The title itself is odd. By focusing on guns themselves as an “epidemic” rather than on the ever-decreasing rate of gun violence, the Times seems to confirm that its editorial staff has a problem with gun ownership per se, regardless of its effects on public safety. The placement of the piece on the front page also suggests that the Times prefers moralizing to simple fact-checking. 

But it is even worse than that. At a time when the Times could have placed a meaningful and trailblazing op-ed on the front page, perhaps calling for an end to the drug war and the thousands of gun deaths associated with it, they instead chose to advocate for an impossible public policy goal that will have little to no effect on the problem at hand.

The piece was clearly animated by the recent spate of disturbing mass shootings. First of all, because it apparently needs to be said again and again, focusing on mass shootings when discussing firearms policy is deeply problematic. Not only do victims of mass shootings constitute one percent or fewer of gun deaths (depending on how “mass shooting” is defined), but the perpetrators of mass shootings are the hardest to affect with public policy changes.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act Is a Compromise, but a Pretty Good One

Last week a bipartisan group of senators, led by conservative Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

The bill clearly represents a compromise between criminal justice reformers and more conservative law-and-order legislators, but the aggregate effect on the criminal justice system would be a substantial improvement.

On the positive side, the bill reduces several mandatory minimums relating to non-violent drug and firearm offenses (notably reducing the “three strikes” life sentence to 25 years), adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes.  Further, the bill would require the federal government to compile and publish a database of all federal crimes, their elements, and their potential penalties.  In addition, the bill would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders, create a new system for assessing the risk level of federal prisoners, among several other corrections changes.

On the other hand, the bill creates brand new federal mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence crimes that result in death and for providing prohibited support to terrorist organizations. It’s unclear why legislators feel that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently by the current sentencing structure, and taking discretion away from judges to impose sentences based on the particular facts of the cases before them is a step back.  Also on the negative side, the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years.  There are nearly 6 million convicted felons in the United States, a great many of them having been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Once again, it is unclear why legislators, rather than judges and juries, should determine the proper punishment for a felon who is caught with a firearm, or why the current 10 year mandatory prison sentence is considered insufficient.

President Obama Announces Drug Sentence Commutations

Today President Obama announced that 46 non-violent drug offenders will have their sentences commuted and be released this year.  The announcement comes ahead of President Obama’s speech on sentencing reform later this week from a prison in Oklahoma.

The vast majority of the offenders were convicted of cocaine offenses, along with a handful of marijuana cases and some general “controlled substance” violations.  The lowest initial sentence among the 46 was 15 years, while several received life sentences.  In issuing the commutations the White House noted that, due to recent sentencing reforms, these sentences are out of step with the sentences the offenders would receive for the same violations today:

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

The list of recipients, along with their offenses, can be found here.  

President Obama Wields Much More Influence over Police than He Admits

Taking time out of his press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe on Tuesday, President Obama addressed the chaos in Baltimore following the unexplained death in custody of Freddie Gray. 

While pleading for calm, President Obama lamented his lack of authority to fix the problem:

Now, the challenge for us as the federal government is, is that we don’t run these police forces.  I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain.  But what I can do is to start working with them collaboratively so that they can begin this process of change themselves. 

Obama also lamented the lack of political momentum to address the poverty and violence afflicting communities like Baltimore:

That’s how I feel.  I think there are a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way.  But that kind of political mobilization I think we haven’t seen in quite some time.  And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference.  But I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.

Both of those lamentations are misleading.

While it’s true that the federal government generally lacks the power to “force” local police departments to change their behavior, Obama’s comments completely omit his role in administering several federal policies that facilitate, and even incentivize, the abuses and tensions he condemned.

The federal drug war tears apart families through mass incarceration and violence and unjustly forces millions of (especially poor, minority) Americans to carry the stigma of being a convicted criminal. Prohibition, just as it did in the 1920s and 30s, has turned huge swaths of urban America into battlefields in the competition for black market real estate. President Obama has already demonstrated a willingness to ease federal drug enforcement in several states, and there is nothing keeping him from expanding that rollback.  He has also pardoned several non-violent drug offenders, even while federal prosecutors convict new ones every day.

Mass Surveillance: From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror

At first glance, the USA Today headline seemed like many others in the nearly two years since Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations: U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades. And while the program essentials were the same—the secret collection of the telephone metadata of every American– there were two key differences between this story and the hundreds before it on this topic. The offending government entity was the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the warrantless surveillance program was launched during the first Bush administration.

Justice Department officials told Reuters that, “All of the information has been deleted.”  “The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.” However, DoJ provided no actual proof of the alleged data destruction, and the DoJ Inspector General only recently began an inquiry into the program. While it now seems fairly clear that the DEA’s “USTO” metadata collection program served as a model for the NSA telephony metadata program conducted under Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, what is also clear is that Americans are now confronting a government surveillance apparatus that is truly vast. As Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept noted, this particular DEA mass surveillance program is just one of several undertaken by the agency over the past three decades.

How many other such programs exist at other federal agencies, whether inside or outside of the U.S. intelligence community? And how far back do such programs go? How many members of Congress knew, and for how long? Was this DEA program concealed from the agency’s inspector general for two decades, or did the IG simply fail to investigate the program year after year out of apathy or indifference?

If the past is any guide at all—and the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 1970s are a very good guide—we are once again confronting a level of government over-reach that calls for a comprehensive, public accounting.

In is new book, Democracy in the Dark, former Church Committee chief counsel Fritz Schwartz notes that “…too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep illegal or embarrassing conduct from Americans…the Church Committee also found that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had secretly abused their powers.” For the paperback edition of his book, Schwartz is going to have to add more American chief executives to his list.

The 4th Amendment Is Another Victim of the Drug War

Over at the Washington Post, Radley Balko details a recent Fourth Circuit ruling overturning an award for a father whose son was shot and killed in a military-style SWAT raid after marijuana residue was found in an outside garbage bag. A jury awarded the father $250,000 after it was shown that the police failed to comply with their obligation to knock and announce their presence before barging in and that they lied about several aspects of the raid.

Without repeating the entirety of Balko’s excellent analysis, a particularly troubling aspect of the ruling is the nonchalant way in which the Fourth Circuit judges, even in dissent, treat the militarized raid over marijuana residue and dispense with any suggestion that such escalated violence is constitutionally questionable:

Let’s first start by noting one very important issue that is not in dispute—whether the massive amount of force the police brought to bear in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As far as the federal courts are concerned, it was. As Judge Pamela Harris points out in her dissent, “The point here, to be clear, is not to take issue with the Officers’ decision to execute a search warrant based on marijuana traces by way of a military-style nighttime raid.”

Harris is correct. The courts long ago decided that dangerous, punishing SWAT-style raids to search for pot—even when there is no evidence of distribution—are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A lawsuit arguing otherwise will be promptly tossed.

Balko then points out that such behavior is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent:

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