A few weeks ago, a Michigan non-profit released the results of a study looking at arrests and prosecutions of gun charges in Ingham County, home to the state capitol of Lansing. According to the group, black residents are far more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested and prosecuted for carrying a gun without a license, and Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon responded to the report by announcing her office would be bringing fewer of these cases to trial. As Siemon noted at the time, under Michigan state law any conviction for carrying a firearm without a license comes with a mandatory two-year prison sentence, but prosecutors have other ways of going after truly violent offenders.
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.
While I’m all in favor of Siemon focusing her office’s efforts on prosecuting actual violent crimes and not mere possessory offenses, reaction in Lansing itself has been decidedly mixed.
Siemon has “reached out to people who actually understand what’s going on out here in the streets and I just commend her for listening,” said community activist Michael Lynn Jr. “It makes me feel like progress is happening.”
Lynn runs the Advocates CPL business on Lansing’s south side. As a person who provides free CPL classes to young people in Lansing, Lynn said both policies will be beneficial for those young people who have made a mistake.
Young people are being pulled over for minor traffic stops and they’re finding felony firearms In their cars, and these young people are just trying to protect themselves from the very streets we understand are dangerous,” Lynn said.
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth sees the issue differently.
“I think the vast majority of the community feels that this is the wrong thing to do and it’s not time for experiments,” he said
Wrigglesworth said he’s not happy how Siemon went about introducing these policies. He said the sheriff’s office was not included and communication between his office and the prosecutor’s office was not the best.
I can understand the sheriff’s point of view, especially when it comes to communication between his office and the prosecutor. After all, while Siemon has said she wants to “dial down” the number of prosecutions for carrying a gun without a license, it’s the sheriff’s office and the Lansing police department that will actually be making arrests and presenting cases to the prosecutor.
At the same time, you could make the case that now is actually a pretty good time to experiment, since the status quo doesn’t seem to be working that well. There were 12 homicides in Lansing in 2019, compared to 21 last year, and this year has been even worse. There were 22 homicides reported in Lansing as of late June, and a number of fatalities have been reported since then. With shootings and homicides heading in the right direction, it seems to me that focusing resources on prosecuting violent offenders isn’t a bad idea.
However, it’s not enough to simply scale back the number of prosecutions for carrying a gun without a license. I’d like to see both the Ingham County prosecutor and sheriff, along with officials in Lansing, start to push for a culture of responsible and legal gun ownership. Activists like Mike Lynn are stepping up to provide young adults with the training they need to lawfully carry, but he can’t do it alone. There really needs to be a commitment on the part of city and county officials to replace their decades-old strategy of making guns taboo and shift to a position of actively encouraging the safe and responsible exercise of the right to keep and bear arms. It shouldn’t be seen as an experiment, but a change in tactics based on experience.