Feds press gun charges to get ‘worst of the worst’ off streets
Twice as many suspects have been charged with gun offenses in Oklahoma City federal court since the U.S. Justice Department last year reinvigorated a programto reduce violent crime nationwide.
“The process in the federal system moves real quickly,” federal prosecutor Robert Troester said. “We can get them detained quickly, we can get them set for trial quickly and then get them sentenced quickly.
“And they could be sent to a prison halfway across the United States without the ability to continue their influence and be a threat to the community.”
The dramatic increase comes from Project Safe Neighborhoods, which was revived in October 2017. Its mission is to target “the worst of the worst offenders” for federal prosecution on firearm possession charges, Troester said. Many of those charged are felons who cannot legally possess a firearm or ammunition under federal law.
“Our overriding goal in this entire PSN and the gun initiative is to help keep our communities safe,” said Troester, the lead prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Oklahoma.
The prosecutor said his office also has put a special emphasis on targeting domestic violence offenders.
Last fiscal year, 108 individuals were charged in Oklahoma City federal court with gun offenses. The prior fiscal year saw only 52 individuals charged in gunrelated offenses. The last federal fiscal year ran from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30.
Prosecutors are focusing, in part, on “perpetually bad” felons, Troester said.
“They’ve obviously shown a propensity to commit crimes and violent crimes . ... If they’ve got more than three, we’re definitely going after them because, let’s face it, the first several convictions that they had ... obviously didn’t correct the behavior,” he said. “We’re protecting ... society at large from some unknown future crime that we think is possibly going to be committed.”
The maximum punishment for a felon in possession of a firearm is 10 years in federal prison. But if a felon has three prior convictions for either violent felonies or serious drug offenses, the punishment range jumps to a minimum of 15 years to a maximum of life in prison. Offenders must serve 85 percent of their prison sentences.
Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz said he has no problem with federal prosecutors targeting felons who have shown a propensity to continue committing crimes. He said it’s a good way to get guns off the street and take them away from people who have previously committed crimes.
“I think they should be expedited through the criminal justice system,” Ravitz said. “And I think it’s a good idea because federal courts also have resources to maybe help them.”
After decades of declining crime trends, the FBI reported a rise in violent crimes between 2014 and 2016. This spike prompted DOJ to jump start Project Safe Neighborhoods, which originally launched in 2001.
“It was a recognition that there was an upswing in violent crime,” Troester said.
DOJ then directed the U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country to develop crime-reduction strategies and combat gun violence.
“We had been doing these cases all along but with limited resources available to establish it as a signature priority,” Troester said.
But now with this initiative becoming a top priority, second only to fighting terrorism, the Western District will receive two additional prosecutors in December, Troester said.
“This has been elevated to that No. 2 status, which comes with it, the resources from Washington,” the prosecutor said.
The project involves a prevention program that educates convicts on the gun laws and the potential consequences if caught with a firearm.
Domestic violence focus
Troester said his team also has approached this directive from a domestic violence angle that is “unique across the country.”
Under federal law, anyone subject to a protective order or who has a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction is prohibited from having a firearm, said Lori Hines, the deputy criminal chief over the district’s violent crimes unit.
“The reason that those are key to our initiative is that they are prohibitions against possessing a firearm,” she said. “We realized that there is a way to remove domestic violence offenders from the community without them having had prior felony convictions.”
State prosecutors can charge felons with gun possession offenses but these other two federal categories are not available to them.
These two gun prohibitions had been available to federal prosecutors but weren’t being charged much. Now, 35 percent of the gun cases in Oklahoma City federal court are domestic violence-related, Hines said.
Troester said, “This is where we can make a difference across our entire community.”
Domestic violence knows no socioeconomic, ethnic or educational boundaries, he said.
The prosecutor said partnerships with state and local law enforcement are “paramount” in making this effective.
“There’s so many cases to go around. Where can we make the most difference and how can we best use the federal statutes to help them?” he said.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he appreciates the federal prosecutors using their statues to charge violent criminals when he can’t.
“This unique collaboration between state and federal prosecutors can be a model for successfully addressing the most violent domestic abusers across the country,” Prater said.