'If you bring a gun to a crime, you will likely do federal time'

'If you bring a gun to a crime, you will likely do federal time' »Play Video
Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan speaks at a press conference about new measures to curb gun violence on June 18, 2012.
SEATTLE (AP) - The Justice Department's top official in Seattle promised Monday to start sending more people to federal prison for gun crimes following several tragic and random shootings in the city, including the deaths of four people at an artsy cafe.

For more than a decade, federal prosecutors have reviewed state cases of felons caught with weapons under a nationwide program called Project Safe Neighborhoods, and they've gone after some of the worst offenders - sending them to federal prison for longer than they would face under state law.

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said her office will now prosecute all felon-in-possession gun cases in Seattle in which there is federal jurisdiction and in which the defendants would face more time federally.

"We have seen way too many shootings in the city this year," Durkan said at a news conference. "If you bring a gun to a crime, you will do time, and you likely will do federal time."

The federal penalties for gun crimes include up to 10 years for being a felon caught with a firearm, an automatic five-year minimum for bringing a gun to a drug deal, and a 15-year minimum for those who are caught with a gun after having three prior violent or drug-related felony convictions.

By contrast, under state law, ex-cons who are caught with a gun could face a two-year sentence if their underlying felony is considered "serious." If the underlying felony is not considered serious - burglary, drug cases, and child pornography among others - it takes four convictions for being a felon-in-possession before the offender is sent back to prison for one year, said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who hosted the news conference Monday.

Few people realize how lenient state law is about felons who get guns, Satterberg said, and Washington state is also permissive when it comes to armed children. Children under 18 have to be convicted of illegal gun possession five times before they are sent to a state Juvenile Rehabilitation Authority facility for 15 weeks, he said.

Seattle has already seen more homicides this year - 21 - than it saw all of last year, though it remains one of the nation's safer big cities.

On May 30, a man with a history of undiagnosed mental problems walked into a cafe in the city's University District and opened fire, killing four people and wounding another. He then killed a woman downtown while stealing her car, and took his own life on a city street that afternoon as police moved in to arrest him.

The spree followed two unrelated, random killings. In the first, a 21-year-old culinary student who had just moved to Seattle was killed by a bullet fired from a passing car as she was walking home. In the second, a man was driving in a van with his children and his parents in broad daylight when a bullet struck him in the head. The still-unidentified shooter, who had been in an argument on the street, was aiming for someone else.

Last year, a King County deputy prosecutor specially designated to review gun cases for federal prosecution, Stephen Hobbs, looked at 200 cases. The U.S. attorney's office wound up prosecuting 40 of those cases, and in about 50 others, Hobbs sent a letter to the defendants warning them that they would probably face federal prosecution - and a longer sentence - unless they agreed to plead guilty in state court.

In about 25 to 50 of the cases, the U.S. attorney's office might have had jurisdiction but declined to prosecute, said spokeswoman Emily Langlie. For now, the office's new policy of taking all cases applies only to Seattle.

Durkan, Satterberg and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn acknowledged that solving gun violence takes more than tough prosecution. The state lacks the capacity in many cases to provide meaningful interventions in emergency mental health situations, Satterberg said, and budgetary cuts to social services have compounded that.

But there are things people can do to help, they said. They urged gun owners to keep their guns properly locked up. While Seattle police have recovered 361 guns from criminals this year, 81 others have been reported stolen in burglaries, Deputy Seattle Police Chief Nick Metz said.

They also said state laws should be changed to make penalties stiffer for felons and children who get guns illegally, and to stop gun purchases at gun shows without a background check.

Durkan urged people to call police or mental health hotlines if they're concerned about relatives who have weapons and may be mentally ill.

"There's more help out there than people understand," she said.