The number of guns reported stolen has been on the rise in Tennessee for several years now, and the gun control group Everytown even claims that Memphis and Chattanooga have the highest per capita rates of gun theft in the nation. While gun control activists and their Democratic allies in the state legislature are calling for new laws that would penalize the victims of crime if they fail to secure their firearms, one Republican senator has authored a new bill that puts the onus where it belongs; on the thieves themselves.
Still, I have to say that I’m not sure Sen. Adam Lowe’s bill is going to have much of an impact, even if does become law. Lowe’s proposal would specifically state that a conviction for theft of a firearm would disqualify someone from ever lawfully purchasing one in the future; something that’s arguably already the case given that gun theft is a felony under current state law.
“What we’re saying is it doesn’t matter if the DA does their job or not, in Tennessee, if you steal firearms from law-abiding people, you’re going to forfeit that right,” Lowe said.
In Tennessee, people are already restricted from owning a firearm if they have a felony on their record, so this bill would bring consistency to the rest of the code.
Regardless, Lowe said he drafted the bill because of a lack of enforcement of current laws on the books.
“We have some district attorneys in this state that aren’t doing their job,” he said. “They’re pro-criminal, they coddle to the criminal element more than they do the victims in this state.”
No offense to Lowe, but I’m a little confused here. If his complaint is that prosecutors aren’t doing their job, then how exactly does this legislation address that? It still requires prosecutors to obtain a conviction for theft of a firearm, so those district attorneys who are coddling criminals can continue using and abusing their discretion to offer plea deals to defendants. And if that defendant is convicted or pleads guilty to a felony, they’re already barred from lawfully purchasing a firearm, so Lowe’s bill doesn’t appear to actually add anything new to the statutes currently in place.
I suppose the case could be made that if the Supreme Court decides that a blanket prohibition on felons possessing firearms violates the Second Amendment, the legislation would be a safeguard of sorts; declaring that those convicted of stealing a gun should be considered “dangerous” and therefore subject to loss of their right to keep and bear arms. But Lowe’s bill doesn’t say anything along those lines. It simply amends Tennessee law to specifically include the crime of firearm theft as a disqualifier, along with stalking, an adjudication of mental illness, and other felonies or crimes punishable by more than a year in prison as outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 922.
Lawmakers elevated theft of a firearm to a felony in 2021 in a previous attempt to crack down on the growing number of cases, but so far that doesn’t appear to have had much of an impact; in large part because arrests are few and far between. But even when arrests have been made, there are only a handful of prosecutions to show for it, at least in the Nashville area. Lowe says Davidson County prosecutors are coddling criminals, but as the Tennessean reported a couple of months ago, some attorneys say the tougher penalties have actually made it harder to bring these cases forward.
A stolen gun can change hands multiple times before it’s recovered, and witnesses and the gun owners can be hard to track down or reluctant to testify.
Under the new penalty, defense attorneys have little bargaining room with the six month mandatory jail time and are less likely to settle a case.
As a result, most felony gun theft charges are dropped.
The Tennessean reviewed more than a 100 Davidson County court cases from 2022 through May 2023, after the law went into effect, and found that the vast majority of gun theft charges were eventually dropped or dismissed, mostly due to lack of proof and witnesses.
In most cases, defendants will end up being convicted on other criminal charges since most of them are committing other crimes along with the gun theft.
But the dropped charges show how a law that was meant to bring change in reality does little once it hits the court system, said David Raybin, a longtime local criminal defense lawyer.
“The dynamic has changed because now the sanction is so severe on a mandatory minimum case that’s already very hard to prove,” he said. “It’s the same philosophy that if we make the penalties harder it’s going to end the crime, and that’s absurd.”
I disagree with Raybin that increasing penalties for crimes won’t have an impact, but if the cases aren’t being prosecuted in the first place then it doesn’t matter how severe the punishment might be. The likelihood of having some consequences in the criminal justice system is at least as important as the specific penalties, and if the vast majority of these cases are being dismissed or dropped that’s giving thieves the message that they can get away with their crimes.
Some prosecutors, like Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp, say they are prosecuting these cases, so it’s unclear if the lack of enforcement in Davidson County is a local problem or an inherent issue with the law. Wamp also told the Tennessean that increasing the penalties for gun theft is better that charging gun owners who have their firearms stolen, and I wholeheartedly agree with her position.
There may not be a simple solution to this particular problem, but if one of the barriers to prosecution is a lack of evidence and witnesses, one way to address that would be to offer incentives for those willing to testify or provide evidence. Nashville Crime Stoppers, for instance, offers a $1,000 reward to anyone who gives information “which leads directly to the felony arrest, prosecution and indictment” of suspects. Maybe that figure could be increased for those providing tips on gun thefts? Crime Stoppers isn’t a state agency, however, but a 501(c)3 non-profit, so increasing the reward money might have be filled by donations and not state legislation.
I appreciate Sen. Lowe trying to crack down on gun thefts by focusing on criminals instead of lawful gun owners. I’m just not convinced that his bill is gonna get to the root of the problem or even have much of an impact if the real issue is a lack of prosecution and the difficulty in building solid cases.