Punishing Illegal Firearm Possession in Durham

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Cook, Philip J

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Gun violence is a high-priority crime problem in Durham and other cities across the nation. In the first half of 2017, over 20,000 Americans died from gun violence. In Durham, as of 2016, gun homicides and injuries are at a 36-year high. Criminal misuse of guns by felons, youths, and others is an important precursor of gun violence. This thesis examines law enforcement response to illegal gun use, with a particular focus on how the courts process arrests for illegal possession, carrying, and transfer of a gun. The data set, all the non-violent, illegal firearm possession cases between June 2015 and June 2016, was specially requested from the Durham District Attorney’s Office to be examined for this thesis. To analyze subsequent arrest rates of the defendants, I gathered the data from the public access terminal at the Durham courthouse. In addition, the data results are better understood through interviews with Durham assistant district attorneys as well as the Durham public defenders. The illegal possession of a gun is essentially a victimless crime and lacks courthouse media coverage, like violent crimes tend to have. However, research suggests that illegal firearm possession is a precursor to violent crime and an inherently risky behavior. Efforts that have historically reduced risky behaviors have played an important role in addressing violent crime. For instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) created political strategy to target DUIs to address high rates of drunk driving accidents. DUI cases are a risky behavior that is a precursor to fatal crashes. In much the same way, reducing illegal firearms could be a useful step toward reducing violent gun crimes. Debate and opposition exist on the efficiency of enforcing a full punishment – like jail time – on a crime committed disproportionately by young black men, unlike DUIs. Minimum mandatories or firearm enhancements– policies that North Carolina does not currently have in place – face pushback from policymakers and some federal judges for being disproportionate to the particular charge and for its damaging effects on black youth. Still, young black men experience gun homicides at a much higher rate than young white men, and this fact warrants more immediate attention. The research indicated that the Durham District Attorney’s Office takes cases most seriously when a misdemeanor or felony probation violation is involved. Felony gun possession cases, without a probation violation, most often result in dismissal. These cases have a conviction rate at less than half, and active sentencing resulting in just 15% of cases. Most cases are charged with multiple offenses, but the gun charge is likely the offense convicted. The Durham District Attorney’s Office is using the gun charge to drive a conviction, even if it is not the lead charge. In addition, the DDA is recognizing more active offenders constituting illegal gun possession cases, as 58% of defendants who were sentenced to jail were rearrested on other gun related charges while 36% of defendants, overall, were rearrested. The police appear to be identifying and arresting a certain suspect, as well – between 18 and 24 years of age, black, and a prior criminal record matching gang diversion risk markers.





Gavcovich, Amanda (2018). Punishing Illegal Firearm Possession in Durham. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/15999.

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