U.S. DOJ asks for stiff sentences for straw gun buyers, despite racial disparities

FILE PHOTO: Guns are displayed at Shore Shot Pistol Range gun shop in Lakewood Township, New Jersey

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) - A U.S. Department of Justice official on Tuesday urged a panel to swiftly comply with a congressional directive to increase prison sentences for so-called straw purchasers of guns, despite concerns that doing so might disproportionately impact Black people.

Gary Restaino, the top federal prosecutor in Arizona, told a bipartisan panel in Washington, D.C., that increasing penalties for straw purchasers - people who buy guns for individuals barred from owning them or for those who do not want to be tracked - would "reflect the danger their conduct poses to public safety."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is obliged to increase sentences for those defendants under a provision of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the major gun safety measure that President Joe Biden signed into law in June.

"We think the time is right to do it now to address the rising problem of gun violence, particularly in many communities across America," Restaino testified on behalf of the department.

The bill came together just weeks after two mass shootings, one in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children at an elementary school and another racist attack targeting Black people in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10.

The commission, which has seven voting members, in January proposed two options to increase penalties, by either allowing judges to enhance sentences for straw purchasers or amending the federal sentencing guidelines to increase the starting, or base, range for sentences.

Restaino, who served briefly last year as interim director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, spoke in favor of the latter option but argued the panel's current proposal does not go far enough in stiffening sentences.

He argued that under the commission's proposal, straw purchasers, who by definition have no previous criminal history, would often face a sentencing range that on the low end was just one month longer than they could get under current policy.

But Leslie Scott, an attorney with the Federal Public and Community Defenders' Sentencing Resource Counsel project, urged the commission to "take a pause" and conduct further study before implementing changes that could exacerbate racial disparities in sentencing.

"A knee jerk response to the directive in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act will not make us safer," she said in a testimony at the hearing, arguing policy makers should collect data first before adopting any measure.

She added rushed changes to the guidelines would disproportionately impact Black communities. The commission in a report last year found that more than half of people sentenced in 2021 under the main firearms sentencing guideline were Black.

The panel faces a May 1 deadline to submit any amendments to the guidelines to Congress.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Aurora Ellis)