Emory Law Journal


David E. Patton


The number of people incarcerated for federal firearm convictions has increased ten-fold in the past 30 years. One of the biggest sources of the increase is a Department of Justice initiative known as “Operation Triggerlock” in which people who are arrested by state and local police for gun possession are prosecuted in federal court for the express purpose of imposing more severe prison sentences. The people prosecuted are overwhelmingly people of color. Both Republican and Democratic politicians have supported the prosecutions: the former as part of an overall law and order agenda and as a way to forestall broader gun control legislation, and the latter as part of a larger effort to regulate guns and to protect against criticism from the right about lack of enforcement of the laws already on the books. This Article examines the history of the prosecutions, including the policy reasons for them and the research on their impact on crime which shows that the prosecutions have little to no impact. The Article then reviews the various criticisms of the prosecutions, including stark racial disparity, contribution to mass incarceration, harm to principles of federalism, diminished civil liberties, and lack of effectiveness. It argues that the uncertain benefits to public safety do not outweigh the known damage to fairness and equality in the criminal justice system. Lastly, the Article considers the prospects for reform in light of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform generally and concludes that while minor reforms may come from Congress and the Judiciary, any significant change is unlikely without a shift in charging policy from the Department of Justice.