Michigan’s felony firearm law is one of the few offenses in our state that carry a mandatory minimum prison sentence. The law imposes a mandatory sentence of at least two years for possessing a firearm when committing or attempting to commit a felony. That sentence which must be served before — not during — the sentence for the underlying felony. The mandatory minimum increases to five years if you have a prior felony firearm conviction, and 10 years for two or more prior convictions.
Felony firearm was enacted in 1976 in response to high rates of gun crimes in Detroit. The law was part of a wave of “tough on crime” policies that also included enactment of harsh mandatory minimum drug laws and a ballot initiative that eliminated “Good Time” credits in 1978.
The rationale for the felony firearm law was that the two-year mandatory prison sentence would deter people from committing crimes using guns, and thereby increase public safety in Detroit. As the state representative that introduced the bill proclaimed to the Detroit News on Dec. 1, 1976:
By Jan. 30, every violent felon in the state will realize that if he is convicted of committing or attempting to commit a crime with a gun he will be behind bars for at least two years without hope of parole or suspension of that sentence.
Similarly, a publicity campaign related to the law bought billboard ads throughout the Detroit area stating, “One with a gun gets you two.” The Wayne County prosecutor at the time, William Calahan, applauded the law and committed that his office would enforce the law strictly and not offer defendants the opportunity to plead out of felony firearm charges. This set the tone for the use of the felony firearm law going forward — particularly in Detroit.
The felony firearm law was enacted during a spike in violent crime, which led some people at the time to incorrectly attribute subsequent declines in crime rates to the felony firearm law. But closer examination of the data suggests there was no relationship between enactment of the law and increases in public safety.
Since 1976, the felony firearm law has changed little — it has only been amended twice, one of which was to simply add pneumatic guns to its scope.
The application of the law has also changed minimally. Felony firearm has remained in wide use by prosecutors across the state. This is particularly so in Wayne County, where prosecutors have continued to pursue felony firearm charges when able, even if the underlying felony does not result in prison time.
These practices have continued despite little evidence that they deter crime or have had a meaningful impact on public safety. Further, it is clear that this law has had an outsized influence the prison population and an unjust impact on numerous individual lives. We will discuss these impacts in future blog posts.
Read the first blog in this series: Felony firearm in Michigan: A case study in what’s wrong with mandatory minimums