While guns should not be in the hands of violent offenders, current federal mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession crimes are broadly written and sometimes produce absurd and unintended results, treating nonviolent gun owners as if they had committed heinous crimes.
Current Gun Mandatory Minimum Sentence Legislation
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917) is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on October 4, 2017, by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
If passed into law, the bill would, among other things, reduce several federal (not state) mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some federal prisoners; make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive; expand the “safety valve” exception for federal drug mandatory minimum sentences; and allow some federal prisoners to spend more time in less restrictive forms of Bureau of Prisons custody if they complete rehabilitative programs and productive activities in prison.
The SAFE Justice Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill does not repeal any federal mandatory minimum sentences or reduce drug mandatory minimum sentences across the board, but instead limits the application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to the highest-level offenders, as Congress originally intended. The bill also fixes problems in the drug conspiracy and good time credit laws, reforms the federal compassionate release process, and permits prisoners to earn time off their sentences for completing rehabilitative programs, among many other reforms. FAMM supports the SAFE Justice Act.
The Problem: Federal law requires lengthy 5-, 7-, 10-, and 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for possessing, brandishing, or discharging a gun in the course of a drug trafficking crime or a crime of violence (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)). There are also mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years for each subsequent conviction. The law requires that these mandatory prison terms be served back-to-back (i.e., consecutively, not concurrently) with each other and with any other punishment the person receives for the underlying offense. This is known as “stacking,” and it can result in absurdly lengthy sentences (see the story of Weldon Angelos below, a nonviolent, small-time pot seller serving a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence). The § 924(c) law is also often applied to nonviolent gun owners who do not actually harm or injure anyone. Additionally, the law applies even to legally purchased and registered guns and rifles found in the person’s home, even if the guns were not present or used during the actual offense. All too often, a nonviolent or addicted drug offender selling drugs in their home can find themselves serving an extra five years in prison just because they also had a gun in the home — even if the gun was never used during a drug sale.
The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)) is another federal gun law that requires a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who possesses a gun or ammunition and also has three prior convictions for drug trafficking or violent felonies. The mandatory minimum applies even if the prior convictions are very old, nonviolent, minor, resulted from a drug addiction, or resulted in no prison time. Currently, there is no safety valve for any federal gun crimes.
- Create a safety valve that allows judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum if doing so will not endanger the public.
- Fix the “stacking” problem: create a safety valve that allows the judge to make 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) sentences run concurrently, rather than consecutively.
- Fix the “stacking” problem: re-write 18 U.S.C. § 924 so that the 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for subsequent convictions only apply when the person is a “true recidivist” – a person whose prior convictions under § 924 are already final (i.e., the person served a sentence for a prior § 924 violation, and then committed another § 924 offense later on).
- Re-write 18 U.S.C. § 924 to reduce the length of the 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for subsequent convictions (e.g., to 10 years or 15 years).