In 1999 Edward Tenner published "Why
Things Bite Back,"
a provocative book about the
unintended consequences of technology. Someone should
write a similar book about law, because the
are even more far reaching.
Gene Healy, a
Cato Institute scholar
, recently provided a
of the unintended consequences
of one law, the new
plan to federalize gun crimes known as
Project Safe Neighborhoods
unintended consequences of this law are frightening.
The law originated in a strategy by the
National Rifle Association
to forestall further anti-gun
tougher enforcement of existing gun
laws. To this end, the legislation funds 113 new
assistant U.S. attorneys and 600 new state and
prosecutors whose only beat is to prosecute
gun crimes. And there lies the unintended consequences.
As Gene Healy rightly
, one consequence is the overenforcement of gun
laws and a "proliferation of `garbage` gun
charges—technical violations of firearms statutes on
which no sensible
would expend his energy."
Conviction rates are the key indicator in judging the
performance of U.S. Attorneys` Offices. Unlike other
prosecutors whose bailiwicks cover all criminal
offenses, the 713 Safe Neighborhood prosecutors are
limited to one offense. Once they run out of serious gun
crimes, they push on with technical and
Meritless convictions were fast in coming. Last
January the Des Moines Registe
; "What sort of country would put a man in
federal prison for 15 years for possessing a single .22
caliber bullet? Ours would." Dane Yirkovsky, a drug user
and sometime burglar, was
as an armed criminal for forgetting to
dispose of a bullet that he found on a floor while
installing a carpet.
Katica Crippen, a 32-year old woman with a drug
conviction, posed naked for her photographer boyfriend
holding one of his guns as a prop. Police found the
photos while surfing internet porn sites. Her nakedness
was no offense, but prosecutors
holding a gun as "being in possession."
Crippen was given an 18-month federal sentence for being
an "armed felon."
Sentencing guidelines force judges to give unjust
sentences for such non-crimes. Federal judge Richard
Matsch, who presided over the
bombing trial, found Crippen`s case on
his docket. Outraged at the lack of prosecutorial
judgment, he asked: "How far is this policy of locking
up people with guns going to go?
this is a federal crime?"
Reporter David Holthouse
191 Colorado federal firearm cases. The
vast majority convicted as "armed felons" had no record
of violent felonies. Most were
charges. Only four had actually
fired a gun during a crime.
In Richmond, Virginia, the meritless gun cases
pursued by federal prosecutor David Schiller caused
federal judge Richard L. Williams to observe that
"ninety percent of these defendants are probably no
danger to society."
Prosecutors already had a hearty appetite for
expansive interpretations of gun laws prior to Project
Safe Neighborhoods. Candisha Robinson sold illegal drugs
to undercover officers in her apartment. A
found an unloaded gun locked in a
trunk in her closet. She was charged by federal
prosecutors with "using" a firearm while committing a
Readers might lack sympathy for unsavory characters,
but unsavory character is no justification for unsavory
In the end, many law-abiding citizens will end up in
jail for merely being
or acting in
A spouse, maneuvering for the upper
hand in a divorce proceeding, can place a gun owner in
violation of gun laws merely by obtaining a restraining
bring first-degree murder charges against
occupants who shoot threatening intruders in
Healy notes other unintended consequences of Project
Safe Neighborhoods. The law contravenes President Bush`s
endorsement of federalism
effort to resist Congress`
Just after his inauguration,
the National Governors Association: "I`m going
to make respect for federalism a priority in this
administration." Bush neither respects federalism nor
upholds the Constitution when he crosses
lines and federalizes petty gun
How can Republicans demand respect for the
Constitution when the centerpiece of their
crime-fighting program leads off by trampling all over
Another consequence, which might not have been
unintended, is jury-shopping by prosecutors. Black
prosecutors` efforts to convict based on
expansive interpretations of laws and meritless charges.
In contrast, white juries believe the prosecutor.
Federalizing gun charges lets prosecutors escape urban
jury pools by moving cases to suburban federal district
Gene Healy advises President Bush to abandon Project
Safe Neighborhoods, because it is an "affront to the
Constitution and the rule of law."
No one should be surprised when many of those
prosecuted in the name of Safe Neighborhoods are hapless
gun owners who are no threat to society.Paul Craig Roberts is the author of
The Tyranny of Good Intentions : How Prosecutors and
Bureaucrats Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name