Last week, we reported on a new study showing enormous racial disparities in arrests and prosecutions for illegal gun possession in Ingham County, Michigan, which is also home to the state capitol of Lansing. At the time, the local prosecutor acknowledged the disproportionate impact on black residents, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. Well, now Carol Siemon has given the matter some thought and has come to a conclusion: her office is going to “dial down” its use of the charge.
On today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co we’re taking a look at the prosecutor’s decision and the motivations behind it. It’s important to note that Siemon isn’t making a Second Amendment-based argument here. She’s not claiming that black residents are being denied their right to keep and bear arms, at least not explicitly. Instead, Siemon is more focused on the fact that the law in question doesn’t appear to lead to less violent crime… just more people behind bars.
The law, adopted in 1976, was intended to deter people from carrying guns, Siemon said.
“There was actually a public service campaign that said, you know, ‘carry one, do two’ and that if you carry a gun, you’re going to just automatically do two years in prison,” Siemon said. “We’ve learned, of course, that deterrence is not a very strong motivator, unfortunately.”
Siemon says the penalty hasn’t made the public safer since prosecutors can add the charge even if the gun was legally owned or if the gun wasn’t used in the underlying felony for which someone was arrested. Instead, she says, the charge is a major driver of racial disparities in incarceration.
Black people make up 12% of Ingham County’s population, but they accounted for 67% of those charged with felony firearm possession in the county last year, according to a news release from the prosecutor’s office.
More than 80% of the people serving time in Michigan on felony firearm charges are Black, according to a recent report from Safe & Just Michigan, a nonprofit that seeks to end mass incarceration.
I’d argue that deterrence can be a strong motivator, but it may very well be outweighed by other factors like the deterrent effect that carrying a firearm can have on being the victim of a violent crime; i.e. it’s better to be judged by twelve people than carried by six.
Regardless, I think Siemon is making the right decision here, but in order to really address the problem she’s going to need help from other stakeholders, starting with the mayor and city council in Lansing. For too long the leadership in cities like Lansing (and Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Newark, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc) have tried to make gun ownership taboo. They’ve blocked gun stores and ranges from operating inside city limits. They’ve imposed restrictions on who can lawfully carry, and have often required onerous training mandates that are difficult for hourly workers and low-income residents to attend. And while they’ve done their best to make it culturally and socially unacceptable to own a firearm, all they’ve really accomplished is to destroy or inhibit a culture of responsible gun ownership.
It’s long past time to start building that culture again, and the good news is that in most cities there are already 2A advocates who are more than willing to help. Last year, I spoke with Lansing resident Mike Lynn, Jr. about this very issue, and I’m guessing that if the mayor and city council were to seriously get behind offering real gun training to residents, there would be plenty of firearm instructors across the state who’d be happy to get involved.
Beyond what the city of Lansing can do, lawmakers in Michigan also have the power to simply rescind the state’s licensing requirement and adopt a Constitutional Carry law as well. That would be the quickest way to put an end to the disparate outcomes in enforcing the law against carrying without a license, but it’s also unlikely to happen with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a position to veto any permitless carry bill. Still, with even Democratic prosecutors like Siemon beginning to recognize the harms caused by gun control laws, it should be no-brainer for Republicans to push for a permitless carry bill in the hopes of ensuring that the Second Amendment rights of the people can be exercised by all.