Sentencing Enhancements for Firearm-Related Crimes

Firearms sentence enhancement laws mandate minimum sentences or extra prison time for felonies committed with firearms. Unlike most gun control measures, enhanced prison penalties for firearm-related crimes have widespread support from all sides of the firearms policy debate. Firearms sentence enhancements do not affect the ability of law-abiding citizens to keep firearms for recreation or self-defense and have the potential to reduce firearm-related violence by incapacitating those who have been convicted of firearm-related crimes and deterring future firearms crimes. Although a recent rigorous research study suggests that sentence enhancements can result in modest crime reductions (Kessler and Levitt, 1999), the evidence on the effects of sentencing enhancements on firearm-related crime is less clear.1

In their examination of the case for a gun-emphasis policy in the prosecution of violent offenders, Cook and Nagin (1979) conclude that firearms use in robbery and assault deserves stiffer punishment because it increases the chance of the victim’s death. In their analysis of case information, Cook and Nagin found that, while there was little difference in recidivism rates between gun users and those using other weapons in Washington, DC, criminals who used a gun in one crime were more likely to be rearrested for a firearm-related crime. Finally, they also found that, in Washington during the mid-1970s, there was little distinction in prosecution and sentencing between firearm-related crime defendants and other-weapon-related defendants when controlling for other characteristics of the case. Apparently, prosecutors had a “weapons” emphasis, but not a “gun” emphasis.

Several small-scale studies suggest that sentencing enhancements for firearm-related crimes might reduce some types of crimes. The results of these studies, however, are sometimes difficult to interpret. For example, McPheters and his colleagues (1984) used interrupted-time-series analyses to evaluate the effects of Arizona’s 1974 firearms sentencing enhancement law. They found highly significant reductions in firearm-related robberies in Pima and Maricopa counties and no significant firearm-related robbery reductions in five southwestern cities outside Arizona that did not pass similar laws during the study time period used as controls. This impact on firearm-related robberies, however, may have been due to regression to the mean, as Arizona experienced a 75 percent increase in firearm-related robberies in the two years prior to the passage of the law (McPheters et al., 1984).


Two National Research Council reports (1978, 1993) explicitly address the deterrent effects of penalties. Both conclude that the likely effects of manipulations of the severity of penalties are fairly small.

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