On July 16, Mohammed Abdulazeez killed five people at a Tennessee military recruitment center and a Navy operations center. It feels like it’s been a busy summer for shootings in America. This is tragic, personal for the victims and their loved ones, and unfortunately also fodder for many a thinkpiece about guns.
Now, Abdulazeez’s massacre, Dylann Roof’s alleged one in South Carolina, and a subsequent shooting in a Louisiana movie theater often provoke a foolish debate on how lone-wolf attacks and senseless massacres can be preemptively stopped. This is a foolish optimism.
Nobody outside of an Asimov novel has the ability to predict which white racist or which radical (Muslim or otherwise) will actually commit violence in service of their views. Not even if someone already has a criminal record can we predict their actions. There is usually someone jumping in after a shooting to remind hysterical people that a radical, a religious person, or even a racist is not an inherently violent person. Criminals have fewer people in their corners.
Yet we live in a country that has 2.3 million people in prison. We need to accept that people with a record deserve a second chance, especially if we want them to turn their lives around.
Earlier this month, President Obama made the wise and constitutionally-sound decision to commute the sentence of 46 people who had been behind bars for an excessive length of time, mostly for drug and related offenses. That very day, vaguely conservative pundit S.E. Cupp wrote a retro-terrible New York Daily News piece about a scary felon the president also freed, back in March. Hopefully the attitude Cupp expressed is dying, because it is responsible for a substantial loss of life and an incalculable number of lost years for people who have been excessively punished.
Owning Guns Doesn’t Make You Violent
According to Cupp, pardoned felon Harold Kenneth Herring, 76, is not the nonviolent offender and victim of draconian drug laws that he was made out to be. Nobody commented on this in March, but it turns out Herring was sentenced not just for possession with intent to distribute crack, but for being a felon in possession of a gun!
Are you still waiting to panic? Cupp writes that she is a staunch Second Amendment supporter, but every fear-soaked word and needless reference to Roof suggests otherwise. (Roof committed a drug offense that some people report as misdemeanor possession. Should he have been locked up and denied a weapon because of that? No. More importantly, nor should the thousands of people who have no intention of committing a violent massacre.)
It doesn’t matter that Cupp agrees that Chicago is violent because of strict gun laws (or at least regardless of them). If she is arguing that simply having a gun makes you violent, she should be filed away with the most timid of liberals. In fact, she reminds me of nothing so much as the Smith College student who argued in the Huffington Post that speaking a slur during a free-speech debate counts as “an explicit act of racial violence.”
But that young woman is a straw liberal who—let’s be mean and assume—is probably not a fan of guns. If Cupp is truly opposed to gun control, she and the people opposed to America’s full-to-bursting prisons must come together and accept the fact that all felonies are not equal. And that having a gun, even when you weren’t supposed to, does not count as being violent.
America’s Overbearing Criminal Statutes
As tempting as it is to flail towards gun-control measures after yet another shooting—yes, even conservatives do so in just this sort of a “sensible” fashion—all this will accomplish is feeling good while more people like Herring suffer.
Consider his background. In 1998, Herring was sentenced to life in prison for the aforementioned charges because he had two previous drug convictions (possession).The man may not be your grandpappy of choice, but selling a substance and possessing and owning a gun doesn’t make him more dangerous than a child rapist, a murderer, or even a bank robber (all of whom could get out of prison at some point). This kind of excessive punishment is pure lunacy. There are thousands of federal statutes, and something like 300,000 ways to be convicted of a felony. The recent bipartisan realization of the need for systematic reform is heartening (albeit criminally late).
But along with celebration of the slow-moving, but still burgeoning push against mandatory minimums, it must be said that these are not just about drug laws, though they were heavily fueled by anti-drug panic. Narcotics minimums often team up with firearm minimums to bring about more disproportionate punishments for even folks who never committed a violent act in their lives.
This isn’t even about having some black-market AR-15 and waving it at a fellow weed dealer. Someone who sells drugs can have a firearm enhancement even if they own a legal weapon. They can be punished if the piece was an antique, or if it was at home while they sold their product elsewhere. They can be hit with additional decades behind bars just for having a gun on their person during a sale, even if they never shot, threatened, or flashed it at someone.
You sold pot with your legal piece strapped to your ankle, or meth while your gun was safely at home, and that makes you deserve an extra decade or two in prison? How is that a conservative mentality? Or a compassionate liberal one?
It’s Insane to Punish People for Legal Posession
Cupp wrote that Herring might be okay now that he’s old and gray, but “at one point in his life he was a very dangerous man” because after all, “[c]an we properly define criminals with guns as ‘nonviolent’?” We can. We must. Shaneen Allen made headlines last year when she was threatened with a seven-plus-years prison sentence after she was pulled over in New Jersey while in possession of her legally-purchased (in Pennsylvania) weapon. Brian Aitken lived under a similar sword of Damocles and was actually convicted before Gov. Chris Christie commuted his sentence. But these horror stories, like any drug war casualty tale, are not unique to New Jersey or its dangerously rigid law.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is a nonprofit that advocates against this prepacked-style of punishment. They focus a great deal on drug punishments, but they also have worked with prisoners who suffer under federal gun minimums. According to their website, these slap “5-, 7-, 10-, and 30-year mandatory minimum sentences [onto offenders] for possessing, brandishing, or discharging a gun in the course of a drug trafficking crime or a crime of violence.” (Strange how the drug war lead to us placing narcotics and violent offenses into the same category, no matter how inaccurate that is.)
From a cleaned-up meth addict who got a longer prison sentence than her dealer, a firearm-owning boyfriend to a gun-owning pot dealer serving a staggering 55-year-sentence, FAMM highlights people who may not always be blameless, but whose crimes pale in comparison to their punishment. (In the latter case, the man suffered from “stacking” which mandates sentences be served consecutively.)
“Categorizing all felons as violent people who shouldn’t have guns is an oversimplification,” Molly Gill, the government affairs counsel for FAMM, said in an email. “Giving them all mandatory minimum prison sentences is inevitably going to produce some unjust results.”
If we want to fix this prison problem—if we want to understand that people who made a few (sometimes arguable) mistakes should not have had their lives destroyed—we need to stop being as terrified as Cupp sounds in her article. A Second-Amendment supporter in particular should be able to understand the world of difference between committing violence and owning a gun.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Gov. Chris Christie had pardoned Brian Aitken. Christie commuted Aitken’s sentence.