Federal prosecutors in Oklahoma stepping up enforcement of gun laws

Federal prosecutors in Oklahoma have stepped up enforcement of gun laws as a way to curb violent crime, using the charges to secure lengthy sentences for people who may have been involved in other illegal activity.

Partnering with local law enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. attorneys in the state’s three federal districts have focused on people who were prohibited from possessing firearms and others who made “straw” purchases of guns.

In the Western District, which includes Oklahoma City and most of western Oklahoma, U.S. Attorney Robert Troester created two initiatives, one targeting domestic abusers and another for anyone firing a gun illegally. His office filed gun charges in 187 cases in the last fiscal year, up from 46 cases five years earlier.

The “Shots Fired” initiative, created in 2021 to focus on people who discharge weapons and are tracked down — sometimes just using shell casings found at the scenes of shootings — has resulted in 73 cases, prison sentences averaging 80 months and nearly 100 guns and more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition seized.

Federal prosecutors in Oklahoma are stepping up enforcement of gun laws.

Jacquelyn M. Hutzell, deputy criminal chief of the violent crime section in the Western District, said police, the ATF and prosecutors were being aggressive about “the cases that matter to people.”

“We’re not picking low-hanging fruit,” she said. “We’re picking people who are really dangerous.”

In the Eastern District, based in Muskogee, U.S. Attorney Christopher Wilson said gun charges are on track to rise 76% in the current fiscal year. Some of the rise has to do with the expansion of the federal criminal justice system after the McGirt v. Oklahoma case in 2020 led to the affirmation of tribal reservations.

Also, Wilson said, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has renewed the emphasis on the long-running Project Safe Neighborhoods, while Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act last year, which included gun provisions.

“It continues to be a priority for the (Justice) Department — for federal law enforcement — to cooperate with state, local and tribal (entities) to focus on individuals who are the primary drivers of violence, trying to get those firearms out of the hands of those who have a history of being violent offenders,” Wilson said.

More:Oklahoma bill aids those who killed their abusers, but not those already behind bars

Robert Troester, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma.

In the Northern District, based in Tulsa, six of the 10 cases returned by a grand jury this month included gun charges.

Gun charges can add years to a sentence, and those years are tacked on to be served consecutively. Possessing a firearm during the commission of a federal drug or violent crime can add five years, brandishing the weapon can add seven and discharging it can add 10.

“If the facts are present, then we will attempt to indict those additional charges for additional deterrence, again to keep firearms out of the hands of violent felons,” Wilson said.

Criminal defense attorneys decried the practice of “stacking” multiple gun charges onto other charges, and a 2018 law made that more difficult for prosecutors to do.

A focus on domestic abuse

Jeff Boshek, special agent in charge of the ATF Dallas Field Division, said, “Our Oklahoma offices outperform the majority of ATF offices across the country. They are the best of the best.”

The bureau is planning to add up to 10 new agents in Oklahoma City, he said, which could double the amount of firearms cases, “which in turn will make the community that much safer.”

Boshek credited the cooperation among authorities and the aggressiveness by prosecutors for the dramatic rise in gun cases. The ATF launched the first mobile NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) unit in the nation in Oklahoma City, allowing for quicker identification and tracing of firearms and ammunition.

Troester, who served in various leadership positions before his appointment as U.S. attorney in 2021, said prosecutors were given some discretion in how they pursued violent crime and firearms offenses.

More:Second Amendment: Supreme Court to decide whether domestic abusers are entitled to guns

Though some target areas with high crime rates, he decided to target specific offenders — domestic abusers and people who had discharged weapons.

The U.S. attorney’s office works with the Oklahoma City Police Department and Palomar, Oklahoma City’s family justice center, on domestic abuse cases. Police officers who find a gun during a domestic abuse call check to see whether the owner has a felony conviction or anything else that would make possession illegal.

If there is a violation, they can take the case to the U.S. attorney’s office, which will file the gun charges immediately. That can give the district attorney time to prepare a state domestic abuse case. Or, if the victim is reluctant to cooperate in a state case, the alleged abuser can be prosecuted solely on the federal gun charges.

“We know from statistics that (when) that abuser has interjected a firearm into the equation, if we don’t intervene at that point and charge it federally, the likelihood is the next time someone’s going to be dead, the victim or the police officer that walks through the door,” Troester said.

“We truly believe that initiative is saving lives.”

Master Sgt. Gary Knight, spokesman for the Oklahoma City Police Department, said, “The men and women of the Oklahoma City Police Department are proud of the results we’ve achieved through our strong partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our fellow law enforcement agencies. We are committed to getting guns out of the hands of criminals, which ensures safer neighborhoods for our community.”

Since early 2018, Western District prosecutors have filed firearms charges against 296 defendants from 24 counties related to domestic violence. Of those, 212 have been sentenced to an average of six years in prison. Because of those cases, 423 firearms and 8,654 rounds of ammunition have been seized. Nearly one-third of the defendants charged under the domestic abuse initiative were gang members.

Hutzell said the program targeting people who had discharged a firearm had not only taken violent offenders off the street but also had an effect on gang activity. Because a wave of gang shootings leads to police and federal agents tracking guns and ammunition, the shootings sometimes stop, she said.

“In those instances, we’ve been able to see how this does work by us jumping in,” she said.

Troester said prosecutors were enforcing the laws approved by Congress to keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t possess them.

“We’re not anti-gun, at all,” he said.

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