Bill O’Reilly believes that he has a solution to gun violence, and he claims that neither major party candidate for president has found this answer. His answer? Mandatory minimum sentences of five years in federal prison for anyone having or using a firearm illegally.
This is nothing new, of course. In fact, O’Reilly is specifically wrong if he means that one current candidate, Hillary Clinton, has never considered the idea of mandatory minimums in general. Her husband signed the Crime Bill of 1994 that included among its many bad ideas — the Assault Weapons Ban, for example — a three-strikes provision for violent felonies and some drug crimes. These days, she has repudiated the law, her campaign staff claiming for her that the times, they have a changed, though the evidence suggests that what specifically has changed is the electorate — more voters in the population who don’t approve of the racial disparities in mandatory sentencing. If there’s one thing we can be certain about regarding Clinton, it’s that she will flip flop on anything that will get her votes.
What about the concerns over racial disparities? The problem with mandatory sentencing with regard to race is that they are imposed on crimes that are committed by groups of people who are easy targets. During the height of cocaine use in the 80s and early 90s, crack possession was treated much more harshly than powder cocaine, and crack is favored by poorer users. The usual argument is that harsh treatment can be avoided if people simply don’t break the law, but fairness requires that when we have two persons who have committed the same act — and using a substance, regardless of how it’s presented is effectively the same act — each person deserves the same treatment. And that’s not how mandatory sentences have worked so far.
But there’s a bigger concern here for gun owners. It’s simple to be dismissive of people who aren’t like us, but unpopular activities aren’t limited to drug use. We gun owners are treated with the same measure of contempt reserved for child molesters by too many supporters of increased control. If we endorse mandatory sentencing for “gun crimes,” we should be concerned about the possibility of more and more acts being called crimes, including things like owning and carrying firearms in ways that are currently legal. Handing power over to the government is always something that should be done with caution, especially if we see some utility in the present moment.
One of the protections of our system of government is that we grant powers to the judicial system — prosecutors, judges, and juries — to reduce penalties, but make it difficult to apply sterner measures. Taking away the discretion to show mercy guarantees that more and more people will end up in prison for a long time, increasing the costs to the public.
And to no effect. Deterrence is a difficult thing to measure, but the research available suggests that the certainty of being punished is more effective than the severity of punishment. Perhaps at ridiculous extremes — a five dollar fine that is certain vs. decades in prison — wouldn’t show this result, but if we choose to put people away for various crimes, a few years that are known to be the inevitable result of the wrongdoing would likely produce the desired results at least as much as harsher sentences.
O’Reilly also complains that Clinton’s approach calls for understanding criminals rather than punishing them. It would be best if he took the trouble to figure out the facts involved, though it doesn’t seem that reaching useful conclusions is his goal.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.