Federal Weapons Prosecutions Rise for Third Consecutive Year

The latest case-by-case records from the Justice Department covering all of FY 2017 indicate that federal criminal prosecutions for weapons offenses grew by 10.8 percent over the levels seen during FY 2016. This is the third year in a row to see an increase in federal weapons prosecutions. Prosecutions during FY 2016 had risen a comparable rate - with 11.5 percent more than in FY 2015.

This follows the March 8, 2017 memorandum that Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent Department of Justice prosecutors directing them to "partner with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement to specifically identify the criminals responsible for significant violent crime in their districts" and singled out statutes penalizing firearms offenses as among the "substantial tools at their disposal."

This marks a return to the levels of weapons prosecutions last seen ten years ago in FY 2007, but it is still far below the peak level of federal weapons prosecutions reached in 2004. Indeed there has been distinctive rises and falls in gun prosecutions over the past three decades. See Figure 1. This is evident whether numbers are based on the lead charge, those classified as "weapons" prosecutions under the Department or Justice program "weapons" area, or by trends in prosecutions referred by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that has been assigned the lead role in enforcing federal gun laws. Detailed numbers are shown in Table 1 at the end of this report.


Figure 1. Federal Weapons Prosecutions, FY 1987 to FY 2017
(Click for larger image)

However, it is important to keep in mind that most gun prosecutions occur at the state and local level, and federal prosecutions are almost certainly dwarfed by anything that is done by the state and local governments. See earlier March 2013 TRAC report that discussed the debate over federal gun policies, examining historical trends in weapons prosecutions and the role of state and local governments.

What Kinds of Gun Violations Are Federally Prosecuted?

There is a long list of gun violations that qualify as federal criminal offenses. Most of these are found in the U.S. Criminal Code (Title 18) under Sections 922 and 924. The U.S. Tax Code (Title 26) also has some criminal weapons provisions, largely under Section 5861. Each of these three code sections includes many separate individual provisions.

While there are numerous federal provisions, just one of these accounts for three out of every four federal weapons prosecutions. During FY 2017, federal records indicate this was the lead charge for 6,161 prosecutions. This statutory provision is found at 18 USC § 922(g)(1) which prohibits any felon from possessing, shipping/transporting, or receiving any firearm or ammunition. The penalty for violating this law is up to ten years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.

The next most frequently used statute is 18 USC § 924(c)(1)(A)(i) which provides for enhanced penalties for the use, carrying, possession of a firearm during the commission of a federal crime of violence or drug trafficking crime. While the second most frequently used, just under one out of twenty (4.6%) of gun prosecutions during the last five years was under this statute. During FY 2017, a total of 339 individuals were prosecuted with this lead charge. This provision has been increasingly relied upon by federal prosecutors - with 81.3 percent more prosecutions under this provision during the last five years, than were seen during the previous five-year period. This occurred despite the fact that the number of gun prosecutions overall has fallen.

In third place, with a total of 226 individuals prosecuted during FY 2017 was a provision concerning unlawful possession of a firearm by a person unlawfully in the United States (18 USC § 922(g)(5)(A)). This provision accounted for 3.3 percent of gun prosecutions during the last five years. Use of this provision, however, is down during the last five years over the number during the previous five-year period.

One provision while still relatively infrequently used has grown significantly over the past couple of years. This is for possession of a gun by persons convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence.

Most gun provisions are fairly infrequently invoked. Table 2 provides a detailed breakdown of federal gun prosecutions by recorded lead charge in each of the past ten years.

Table 1. Immigration Court Asylum Decisions by Fiscal Year and Representation Status
By Lead Charge, Program and Lead Investigative Agency
President Fiscal Year Number of Federal Prosecutions Filed
Lead Charge Program Agency
18 USC 922 18 USC 922, 924;
26 USC 5861
Weapons ATF
Reagan 1986 752 1,374 * 2,131
1987 900 1,484 * 2,192
1988 1,415 2,079 * 2,676
Bush 1989 1,700 2,466 * 3,083
1990 2,191 3,199 * 4,045
1991 2,746 4,347 * 5,362
1992 3,011 4,934 6,629 6,187
Clinton 1993 2,994 4,603 5,900 5,627
1994 2,799 4,158 5,260 4,983
1995 2,745 4,051 5,035 5,160
1996 2,400 3,215 3,935 3,858
1997 2,520 3,236 3,789 3,619
1998 2,994 3,583 3,758 3,697
1999 3,652 4,371 4,948 4,282
2000 4,461 5,193 5,490 5,222
Bush 2001 4,939 5,703 6,507 6,019
2002 6,424 7,289 7,948 7,463
2003 8,293 9,532 10,432 9,699
2004 8,539 9,899 11,015 10,468
2005 8,066 9,422 10,219 10,715
2006 7,502 8,615 9,652 10,164
2007 7,394 8,383 8,919 10,065
2008 7,138 7,936 8,484 9,882
Obama 2009 6,894 7,703 8,188 9,655
2010 6,536 7,237 7,614 9,368
2011 6,483 7,164 7,465 8,861
2012 6,780 7,520 7,774 9,027
2013 6,425 7,086 7,136 8,599
2014 5,708 6,308 6,632 6,722
2015 6,014 6,682 6,853 6,902
2016 6,734 7,446 7,488 7,603
2017 7,520 8,236 8,235 8,567
* The DOJ program which tracks weapon prosecutions not yet established.
Table 2. Number of Federal Criminal Prosecutions by Lead Charge, FY 2008 - FY 2017
Lead Charge FY 2008 FY 2009 FY 2010 FY 2011 FY 2012 FY 2013 FY 2014 FY 2015 FY 2016 FY 2017 FY 2008-2012 FY 2013-2017
All prosecutions with lead charges under 18 USC 922, 924 or 26 USC 5861 7,936 7,703 7,237 7,164 7,520 7,086 6,308 6,682 7,446 8,236 37,560 35,758
18 USC 922a1A - Unlawfully engaging in the business of firearms 150 117 162 182 172 153 124 153 163 145 783 738
18 USC 922a1B - Unlawfully engaging in the business of ammunition 3 1 - - 1 2 - 4 3
18 USC 922a2 - Unlawful transfer to another by a licensee 1 2 3 1 4 3 1 1 6 10
18 USC 922a3 - Unlawful interstate transfer or receipt of a firearm 4 9 7 5 6 12 13 8 13 12 31 58
18 USC 922a4 - Unlawful interstate transfer of any destructive device, machine gun 2 2 3 4 1 - - - 1 - 12 1
18 USC 922a5 - Unlawful transfer of firearm to one who resides out-of-state 9 8 9 12 6 6 7 11 2 7 44 33
18 USC 922a6 - False/Fictitious statements in order to acquire a firearm/ammunition 201 135 123 143 170 111 71 98 111 142 772 533
18 USC 922a8 - Unlw sale/delivery of armor piercing ammunition by an importer or mfg. 1 1 - - 1 - - 2 1
18 USC 922a9 - Unlawful receipt of a firearm by one does not reside in any state 3 1 - 1 - - - 4 1
18 USC 922b1 - Unlawful sale or delivery of a firearm to a juvenile 1 1 1 3 0
18 USC 922b2 - Unlawful sale or delivery in violation of state law 1 1 1 1 - 3 1 6
18 USC 922b3 - Unlawful sale or delivery to an out of state resident 2 2 1 5 - - 2 - - 10 2
18 USC 922b4 - Unlawful sale or delivery of a destructive device, machine gun 1 1 - - 1 - 1 2
18 USC 922b5 - Unlawful sale or delivery without proper record keeping 4 3 9 1 1 - 5 1 16 8
18 USC 922c - Unlawful sale to a person who does not appear in person 3 5 2 1 5 - 3 1 - 2 16 6
18 USC 922d1 - Unlawful sale to a felon or one under felony indictment 60 30 44 35 29 19 47 35 18 30 198 149
18 USC 922d2 - Unlawful sale to a fugitive - - - - 1 1
18 USC 922d3 - Unlawful sale to a drug addict 1 3 - 1 - 1 1 4 3
18 USC 922d4 - Unlawful sale to a person with mental restrictions 1 1 - - - 2
18 USC 922d5A - Unlawful sale to an alien who is unlawfully in the United States 1 3 3 2 2 2 - 1 3 2 11 8
18 USC 922d5B - Unlawful sale to an alien admitted to US under a non-immigrant visa - - 1 - 6 7
18 USC 922d8 - Unlawful sale to person subject to a court order 1 1 - - - 1 - 2 1
18 USC 922d9 - Unlawful sale to person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence 4 3 3 - 1 1 2 - 10 4
18 USC 922e - Unlawful use of common/contract carrier to ship firearm or ammunition 8 11 15 7 7 12 10 17 2 4 48 45
18 USC 922f1 - Unlawful shipment by carrier knowing shipment was in violation of law 1 - 1 1 - 2 1 4
18 USC 922f2 - Unlawful shipment by carrier for failure to obtain an acknowledgment 1 1
18 USC 922g1 - Unlawful shipment, transfer, receipt, or possession by a felon 5,617 5,671 5,310 5,211 5,487 5,266 4,744 4,987 5,559 6,161 27,296 26,717
18 USC 922g2 - Unlawful shipment, transfer, receipt, or possession by a fugitive 8 8 7 12 10 3 8 13 16 6 45 46
18 USC 922g3 - Unlawful shipment, transfer, receipt, or possession by a drug addict 146 112 105 109 118 125 116 132 127 114 590 614
18 USC 922g4 - Unlawful possession by a person with mental restrictions 12 7 9 16 7 13 10 11 8 6 51 48
18 USC 922g5A - Unlawful possession by an Alien unlawfully in the United States 293 341 357 376 321 321 187 199 262 226 1,688 1,195
18 USC 922g5B - Unlawful possession by Alien admitted to U.S. under non-immigrant visa 18 18 23 20 16 8 12 18 16 36 95 90
18 USC 922g6 - Unlawful possession by person dishonorably discharged from Armed Force 2 2 1 12 10 - 1 4 7 3 27 15
18 USC 922g7 - Unlawful possession by person who renounced United States citizenship - 1 - - 1 2
18 USC 922g8 - Unlawful possession by a person subject to a court order 29 25 34 16 33 45 10 10 24 32 137 121
18 USC 922g9 - Unlaw possession by person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence 67 49 56 40 32 39 23 47 116 193 244 418
18 USC 922h1 - Receive/possess/transport firearm in or affecting interstate commerce 1 1 2 1 - 3 1 2 7
18 USC 922i - Transportation or shipment of a stolen firearm or ammunition 8 10 5 6 11 5 6 1 - 8 40 20
18 USC 922j - Receipt or possession of a stolen firearm and ammunition 140 152 113 116 101 116 141 86 132 129 622 604
18 USC 922k - Unlawful receipt/possession of firearm with obliterated serial number 39 40 34 36 54 44 37 35 26 26 203 168
18 USC 922l - Unlawful transportation or receipt of imported firearm 1 4 2 3 1 - - - 1 1 11 2
18 USC 922m - False entry of statements by a licensee 4 3 4 1 5 2 7 - 9 6 17 24
18 USC 922n - Unlawful transportation or receipt by a person under felony indictment 14 19 18 26 33 33 24 37 20 48 110 162
18 USC 922o1 - Unlawful possession of a machine gun 26 28 36 42 83 56 53 48 47 54 215 258
18 USC 922p1A - Poss/involve w/firearm where removal of access, avoid detect by x-ray - - - 1 - 1
18 USC 922q2A - Unlawful possession of a firearm in a school zone 5 5 7 6 8 4 3 5 3 1 31 16
18 USC 922r - Unlawful assembly of semi-automatic rifle/shotgun from imported parts - 2 - - 2 4
18 USC 922s - Interim Brady violation by a licensee 1 1 - - - - 1 1
18 USC 922t - Violation of national instant check system by a licensee 1 - - 1 - 1 1 2
18 USC 922u - Theft from a licensee inventory 42 34 30 30 34 21 35 44 30 105 170 235
18 USC 922w1 - Unlawful possess/transfer of large capacity ammunition feeding device 1 3 1 1 - - - - 5 1
18 USC 922x1A - Unlawful sale or delivery to a juvenile of a handgun 2 1 2 - - - 1 - 5 1
18 USC 922x1B - Unlawful sale or delivery to a juvenile of ammunition for a handgun 1 1
18 USC 922x2A - Unlawful possession by a juvenile of a handgun 1 - - 1 - 1 1 2
18 USC 922 - subsection not specified 215 25 3 - 1 - - - 243 1
18 USC 924a1A - False Firearm Records 89 120 122 132 188 118 75 66 102 78 651 439
18 USC 924a1C - Knowingly import/bring in US or have possession of firearm/ammunition 1 4 3 6 11 21 15 10 7 14 64
18 USC 924a3 - A False statement or representation by a licensee in required records 5 1 1 2 1 1 2 1 1 9 6
18 USC 924a3A - False statement or representation by a licensee in required records 1 1
18 USC 924b - Knowing felony to be committed transports/receives firearm or ammun 2 2 2 4 4 3 5 8 2 7 14 25
18 USC 924c - Use/carry of firearm during crime of violence/drug trafficking offense 434 325 29 62 2 1 - - - - 852 1
18 USC 924c1Ai - Use/carry/possess firearm during commission federal crime of violence 69 291 225 321 303 292 362 347 339 906 1,643
18 USC 924c1Aii - Brandishing a firearm during commission of a federal crime of violence 10 13 16 16 16 8 3 23 45 45 71 124
18 USC 924c1Aiii - Discharge a firearm during commission of a federal crime of violence 7 6 5 4 8 10 6 19 8 22 51
18 USC 924d - Firearms forfeiture 2 12 5 10 4 6 1 1 1 29 13
18 USC 924g - Interstate/foreign travel to acquire firearm to engage in crim offense 5 13 5 5 3 5 7 7 2 9 31 30
18 USC 924h - Transfer of firearm knowing the firearm will be used to commit a crime 2 1 2 - 1 3 - 2 5 6
18 USC 924j - Violates Section 924(c) and causes the death of a person 5 6 5 33 14 17 13 18 41 47 63 136
18 USC 924l - Stealing a firearm which is moving in interstate or foreign commerce 4 11 1 1 5 3 3 6 16 18
18 USC 924m - Stealing a firearm from license importer/manufacturer/dealer/collector 1 6 6 6 4 12 15 4 13 19 48
18 USC 924n - Intent to violate Section 922a1A travel from any state/foreign country - 1 1 - 3 5
18 USC 924o - Conspiracy to commit a violation of 924(c) 4 3 2 1 9 6 7 21 12 13 19 59
18 USC 924 - subsection not specified 26 1 27
26 USC 5861a - Engage in business of mfg/importer/dealer of firearms w/o proper tax 1 7 2 2 5 1 2 8 15 12 31
26 USC 5861b - Receive or possess firearm transferred in violation of Title 26, Ch.53 4 1 3 1 3 2 - - - 9 5
26 USC 5861c - Receive or possess a firearm made in violation of Title 26, Ch.53 6 10 9 5 7 5 6 4 2 6 37 23
26 USC 5861d - Receive/possess firearm not register in National Firearm Registration 129 148 119 122 100 97 90 73 87 92 618 439
26 USC 5861e - Transfer of a firearm in violation of Title 26, Ch. 53 5 5 4 7 1 2 1 2 - 21 6
26 USC 5861f - Making a firearm in violation of Title 26, Ch. 53 6 3 8 5 4 3 5 2 4 6 26 20
26 USC 5861g - Obliterate, remove, change, or alter the serial number of a firearm 1 - 1 - - 2 1 3
26 USC 5861h - Receive/possess firearm having serial no. obliterated/removed/altered 2 1 2 - 1 - - 3 3
26 USC 5861i - Receive or possess firearm which is not identified by serial number 2 1 - - - - 1 3 1
26 USC 5861j - Transport/deliver/receive firearm which has not been registered - - 1 1 1 3
26 USC 5861k - Receive or possess firearm which has been imported or brought into US 1 1
26 USC 5861l - Make a false entry on application/return/record required to be kept 1 1 - - 2 2 1 2 5
26 USC 5861 - subsection not specified 57 56 52 47 35 55 34 31 17 13 247 150
7,138 6,894 6,536 6,483 6,780 6,425 5,708 6,014 6,734 7,520 33,831 32,401

TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.