President Obama recently commuted or shortened the sentences of 214 nonviolent federal prisoners, and a few conservative scholars and activists pounced on what they saw as the president’s inconsistency on gun crimes. These critics pointed out that some of the nonviolent drug offenders to whom the president granted clemency were also convicted of gun-related charges.
As a conservative who never voted for Obama, supports an individual’s constitutional right to own and use firearms, and winces when the president uses terrorist attacks to push gun control, I understand the critics’ charges. But they distract us from the more important issue of whether the president’s commutations were the right thing to do. And there is no doubt that they were.
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The War on Cops, wrote in National Review, “Many advocates of criminal-justice reform believe in maximum gun control, yet the White House press releases on the president’s commutations have been silent on the widespread incidence of illegal gun possession. It would seem that once someone becomes a member of the oppressed prisoner class, the gun issue becomes irrelevant.” Mac Donald’s description of criminal justice advocates doesn’t describe me or many other conservatives supporting reform, like Grover Norquist, FreedomWorks, and the American Conservative Union, but I get her point.
Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America said Obama’s commutations reeked of “incredible hypocrisy.” He told The Washington Times, “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.”
Such criticism is tough but reasonable given the president’s past commitments on guns. But it ignores the reality of our existing federal sentencing laws, which are absurd and counterproductive. Under current federal law, drug addicts who only sell drugs to feed their own habit can receive lengthy mandatory sentences that Congress originally adopted to target kingpins and major traffickers. Moreover, if they “possess” or “use” a gun in connection with their illegal drug sale, they can be hit with an additional mandatory prison term on top of the first term.
Reasonable people will find little to disagree with this logic. After all, it makes perfect sense that a criminal who carries or uses a gun in the commission of any crime deserves a stiffer punishment than someone who doesn’t. That is, until you learn how broadly the words “possess” and “use” are defined in federal law.
Consider the case of Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for three small sales of marijuana to a confidential informant. His sentence was driven to more than five decades not because of the marijuana he sold, but because he was found to have “possessed” a gun in the commission of his crimes. The first time, he had a gun in an ankle holster, never used. During another sale, he had a gun in his car, never used. In the third sale, his gun was found in a safe in his house by law enforcement after the deal. Angelos received zero time for the drugs, but was hit with a mandatory minimum five years for the first “possession” of a gun and a minimum 25 years each for the guns present at sales two and three. No one alleged that Angelos ever threatened anyone with a gun, either explicitly or implicitly, or fired one. Angelos had been a fan of target shooting since boyhood and was not prohibited from owning guns.
Mandy Martinson, a first-time, low-level drug addict, is serving 15 years in prison for her part in helping her boyfriend sell drugs in rural Iowa. Mandy received a mandatory 10 years based solely on the quantity of drugs her boyfriend sold (most of it without her), and another mandatory five years because her boyfriend, after signing a cooperation deal, told prosecutors that Mandy possessed a gun (which was actually his). The judge, who saw the tragic injustice in sending this nonviolent addict to prison for 15 years, objected to the sentence but had no choice in the matter. Congress had tied his hands.
When pundits and activists rail against reducing sentences for “dangerous criminals who were convicted of gun-related crimes,” they often neglect to mention that one-size-fits-all federal sentencing laws are being applied to many lower-level offenders who are not dangerous and who have never engaged in or even threatened violence. Congress should stop allowing such disparate offenders to be lumped together and treated the same. Even in this age of polarization and paralysis, our policymakers should be able to draw distinctions between an armed bank robber and a drug addict with a gun in his bedroom closet.
Kevin Ring is the vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and editor of Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents (Regnery). The views expressed above are his own.