Bipartisan sentencing reform proposal would free gun-carrying felons

As John noted, President Obama barely waited for the blood to dry in Oregon before seizing on the mass shooting at a community college to call for “common sense gun safety laws.” Ironically, at just about the same time a bipartisan group of Senators was introducing criminal sentencing reform legislation that would cause the release from jail of criminals who carried guns while committing drug felonies.

As Bill Otis explains, under current law, specifically 18 USC 924(c), a defendant who carries a gun in the course of committing a drug felony is subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum term for the firearm, in addition to the sentence for the drugs. For a second and subsequent 924(c) offense, he is subject to consecutive mandatory terms of 25 years, which is called “stacking.”

The reform legislation proposed by Senators Grassley, Leahy, Durbin, Schumer and several others would repeal “stacking” and allow for retroactive application of this relief. Retroactive application would mean that gun-toting felons are released from jail. Moreover, the only beneficiaries of this “reform” would be felons who carried guns when they committed their crimes.

President Obama is expected to support this legislation, though he likely wishes it granted relief to more criminals. Such support would be hard to reconcile with his oft-expressed concern about gun violence.

Otis, a former federal prosecutor with decades of experience, points out that shootings — including ones that (like yesterdays’) kill or injure multiple victim — are common in the drug-dealing business. Whatever one thinks of guns in general, it should be beyond dispute that guns in the hands of criminals committing crimes are dangerous, whether actually used or not.

“Stacking” is a response to this reality. To be sure, it can sometimes result in an unduly harsh sentence, though there are several mechanisms that can alleviate the harshness.

In any event, hard cases can make bad law. Repealing stacking and releasing gun-toting felons would be bad law, and the antithesis of a common sense approach to reducing gun violence.

After the Oregon mass killing, Obama stated that we “can’t sort through and identify ahead of time who might take action like this.” But felons who carry guns while committing crimes identify themselves as people who might well kill.

“Stacking” puts this knowledge to good use. It should not be repealed.