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Gun crimes

A study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission released in June reported more than two-thirds of federal gun offenders were re-arrested within eight years of being released from prison, compared to less than half of nonfirearms offenders.

Dennis Wallace Haggerty is not supposed to have guns.

His felony convictions — assault with a firearm and shooting at an unoccupied dwelling — terminated that constitutional right.

Yet when parole agents with an arrest warrant searched his girlfriend’s home in May, they found a loaded pistol in a closet and an AR-15-style gun in her SUV, which he’d allegedly borrowed the night before, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

His rearrest — for now on a parole violation — follows a pattern linking gun offenders to a high rate of recidivism.

A study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission released last month reported more than two-thirds — 68% — of federal gun offenders were rearrested within eight years of being released from prison, compared to less than half — 46% — of nonfirearm offenders.

The research also found that the rearrests happened at a quicker rate than nongun offenders, and for more serious crimes.

And while criminal behavior typically dwindles in middle to old age, strikingly 39% of firearm offenders released from prison after age 50 were rearrested, almost twice as high as the recidivism rate for nonfirearm offenders over 50.

The findings don’t come as particularly surprising to those in the criminal justice field, but it does reinforce the need for closer post-release supervision and rehabilitation, experts said.

“Just amping up the punishments for these behaviors without remedying the underlying causes for these behaviors is not going to do anything than fill up the jails,” said David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University who studies American gun culture.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s focus on gun offenses comes as part of a larger examination of recidivism to help inform the criminal justice system on appropriate sentencing policies.

The study looked at a pool of 25,000 federal inmates who were released from custody in 2005, including 3,446 whose crimes involved firearms in some way.

The gun charges included everything from use of a gun during the commission of a crime — such as armed robbery or drug trafficking — to illegal possession, receipt, purchase, transportation, manufacturing or theft of firearms or ammunition.

The researchers tracked the offenders for eight years after their initial release for any kind of rearrest, be it a probation violation or new felony or misdemeanor.

Those with the gun charges had a much harder time staying out of custody, the study found.

The median time to rearrest was 17 months after release for gun offenders, compared with 22 months for nongun offenders.

The most common serious cause for rearrest was assault for both types of offenders, but at a higher rate for gun offenders — 29% compared to 22% for nongun offenders.

Firearm offenders also had more extensive criminal histories than their counterparts, and previous research by the commission has confirmed the strong link between an offender’s prior record and recidivism.

The demographics of the two groups of offenders differed in many ways.

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The study found 48% of firearm offenders were black, followed by 41% white and 8% Hispanic. They were overwhelmingly male — 97%.

Nonfirearm offenders were largely white — 44% — followed by 32% black and 19% Hispanic. Women made up 20% of this category.

The study did not explore if demographic differences between the two offender categories were a factor in the recidivism rates — a key point because blacks and Hispanics have long been arrested and incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than whites for a variety of reasons, including societal and institutional biases.

A recent Illinois study, however, tried to control for such demographic differences in its research on the same topic and ultimately concluded that gun involvement remained a major factor for recidivism.

The study, published in July 2018 by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, found that 67% of the gun group was rearrested, compared to 41% of the nongun group — remarkably similar results as the commission’s.

“Being initially firearm-involved was such a strong ... predictive factor of re-arrest that other variables, such as being male, black, and younger at the initial arrest, added little explanatory power for the different rates of recidivism between the two groups,” researchers Christine Devitt Westley and Bobae Kang wrote.

Gun owners, whether they’re in the legal or illegal realm, often cite the same initial motive for possession: self-defense, Yamane said.

“If you’re involved in criminal activity, one of the major motivating factors of having a gun is to defend yourself against other people engaged in similar activity,” the professor said.

After release from prison or jail, gun offenders typically go back to the same neighborhoods or face the same enemies as before, Yamane said.

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