A Project Not So Safe for liberty.(COMMENTARY)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Project Not So Safe for liberty.(COMMENTARY)


Byline: Paul Craig Roberts, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In 1999 Edward Tenner published "Why Things Bite Back," a provocative book about the unintended consequences of technology. Someone should write a similar book about law, because the unintended consequences are even more far reaching.

Gene Healy, a Cato Institute scholar, recently provided a thorough exploration of the unintended consequences of one law, the new Bush-Ashcroft plan to federalize gun crimes known as the Project Safe Neighborhoods program. The unintended consequences of this law are frightening.

The law originated in a strategy by the National Rifle Association and the Bush administration to forestall further anti-gun legislation by emphasizing tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. To this end, the legislation funds 113 new assistant U.S. attorneys and 600 new state and local prosecutors whose only beat is to prosecute gun crimes. And there lies the unintended consequences.

As Gene Healy rightly notes, one consequence is the overenforcement of gun laws and a "proliferation of 'garbage' gun charges - technical violations of firearms statutes on which no sensible prosecutor would expend his energy."

Conviction rates are the key indicator in judging the performance of U.S. Attorneys' Offices. Unlike other prosecutors whose bailiwicks cover all criminal offenses, the 713 Safe Neighborhood prosecutors are limited to one offense. Once they run out of serious gun crimes, they push on with technical and meritless indictments.

Meritless convictions were fast in coming. Last January the Des Moines Register asked, "What sort of country would put a man in federal prison for 15 years for possessing a single .22 caliber bullet? Ours would." Dane Yirkovsky, a drug user and sometime burglar, was sentenced as an armed criminal for forgetting to dispose of a bullet he found on a floor while installing a carpet.

Katica Crippen, a 32-year old woman with a drug conviction, posed naked for her photographer boyfriend holding one of his guns as a prop. Police found the photos while surfing Internet porn sites. Her nakedness was no offense, but prosecutors interpreted holding a gun as "being in possession." Miss Crippen was given an 18-month federal sentence for being an "armed felon."

Sentencing guidelines force judges to give unjust sentences for such non-crimes. Federal judge Richard Matsch, who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing trial, found Miss Crippen's case on his docket. Outraged at the lack of prosecutorial judgment, he asked: "How far is this policy of locking up people with guns going to go? Who decided this is a federal crime?"

Reporter David Holthouse examined 191 Colorado federal firearm cases. …

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