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Study Says Federal Gun Prosecution Declining Despite Growing Concerns

By Eric Lichtblau and Matt Lait
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Amid a growing national clamor for toughened gun control, a new study released Saturday shows that the number of federal weapon cases has dropped more than a third in recent years .

The study also found that criminals convicted on federal weapon-related charges are serving shorter prison sentences than in past years, which researchers said suggests that federal authorities have fallen short in their attempt to target the nation’s biggest gun traffickers.

While the analysis by a research center at Syracuse University was limited to enforcement of federal weapon laws, gun control opponents immediately seized on its findings as new ammunition for their argument that federal authorities are not doing a good enough job of enforcing gun laws that are already on the books.

“We do not lack for laws. We lack enforcement of laws,” National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston said when told of the study. The findings, he said, “are hard to refute.”

But law enforcement officials took issue with the study, saying that raw statistics can be misleading.

“They’re saying our numbers are down, and perhaps they are, but there are things that they aren’t taking into account -- for instance, better coordination with local authorities,” said an official at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who asked not to be identified by name.

In the last few years, federal officials have moved more aggressively to coordinate investigations with local authorities, referring cases to state prosecutors when possible, especially in states with tough gun penalties, officials said. In fact, state prosecutions are up.

As a result, when federal and state weapon cases are combined, Justice Department statistics show that the number of charges actually has risen more than 20 percent since 1992, said one official, who asked not be identified by name.

Law enforcement officials suggested that a number of other factors -- such as understaffing and a shift in investigative priorities, rather than lax enforcement -- may help explain the declining weapon caseload.

They acknowledged, however, that the study’s surprising findings may be worth a closer examination, especially given the impassioned debate on gun violence triggered by a spate of deadly shootings around the country -- from the hallways of a Littleton, Colo., high school to brokerages in Atlanta to a Jewish community center in Los Angeles.

Lawmakers have been pitching new gun control proposals at a frenzied pace in recent months, only to be met with staunch resistance from the well-heeled NRA and its supporters.

The Syracuse study was conducted by a nonpartisan research center that went to court to gain access to federal statistics.