What do federal firearms offenses really look like?

A recent report from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) published this month provided in-depth information on federal firearms offenders sentenced in 2021 under the primary firearms guideline, §2K2.1. This report is part of a larger series that examines various aspects of firearms offenses, such as mandatory minimum penalties and firearms offenders’ recidivism rates. USSC’s past research has found that firearms offenders are generally younger, have more extensive criminal histories, are more likely to recidivate, and are more likely to engage in violent criminal behavior. The number of firearms offenses has risen in recent years, and this report provides details that may be useful to policymakers.

Key Findings

-From 2007 through 2021, firearms offenses were among the most common crimes in federal court. In 2021, these cases represented 40% of the caseload in five districts. §2K2.1 was the third most frequently applied guideline in fiscal year 2021, and these cases have increased by 45.3% between 2015 and 2021 (from 5,325 to 7,735 cases).

-The guidelines exert a strong influence on the sentences imposed in firearms cases, with about half (49.6%) of felony offenders sentenced under §2K2.1 receiving a sentence within the guideline range. This is about ten percentage points higher than the ‘within guideline’ rate for other federal offenders.

-Not surprisingly, firearms offenders sentenced under §2K2.1 have more extensive and more serious criminal histories. They were more than twice as likely to have a prior violent conviction than other offenders (60.6% versus 29.0%).

-The majority of firearms offenders (88.8%) sentenced under §2K2.1 were prohibited from possessing a firearm due to either a prior felony conviction or their status in another prohibited class (e.g., unlawful aliens in the U.S., fugitives, or people addicted to controlled substances).

-More than 25% of firearms offenders engaged in aggravating criminal conduct that either facilitated or had the potential to facilitate another felony offense (most commonly drug trafficking). In 11% of §2K2.1 cases, an offender (or accomplice) discharged a firearm, resulting in death or injury in 4.1% and 18.3% of cases, respectively.

-Firearms offenders often stole their firearms, especially when they were prohibited from possessing a firearm. Nearly one-third (32.4%) of offenders who were prohibited from owning firearms committed offenses with either a stolen firearm or a firearm with an obliterated serial number. Almost one-fourth of offenders (23.6%) who were prohibited from owning firearms resorted to committing offenses with other prohibited weapons such as a sawed-off shotgun or machine gun.

-The average sentence for federal firearms offenders varied depending on the presence of aggravating factors. Those who did not engage in aggravating conduct received an average sentence of 35 months. Longer sentences were applied for people who engaged in aggravating conduct, such as: 1) using a stolen firearm or firearm with an obliterated serial number (an average of 55 months); 2) using a prohibited weapon such as a sawed-off shotgun or machine gun (an average of 58 months); 3) trafficking firearms (an average of 62 months); or 4) using a firearm in connection with a violent crime or drug trafficking crime (an average of 119 months).