What happens if you’re arrested for an illegal gun in DC? Sometimes, not much

City leaders have long lamented the proliferation and accessibility of illegal guns with crime again on the rise. D.C. police often highlight all the arrests they make for possession of them, too.

But not everyone arrested is convicted, or even charged, a D.C. Council member said Tuesday night.

“About a third of all of MPD’s gun arrests don’t get papered by the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen during a town hall focused on crime in his ward. “Meaning they don’t move forward to be charged. That’s concerning and I want to know why.”

Allen said his office just received that information last week. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine wasn’t ready to substantiate that claim, and Magdalena Acevedo, a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, suggested that the real number of arrests that don’t get charged might be more like around 15%.

She said some gun arrests “may not pass constitutional muster,” but she and Racine also pointed out that the standard for an arrest and a prosecution are different.

“Let’s say there’s an individual stopped in a car and there are three people in a car and one gun. In that case, the police officers can arrest all three individuals for potentially having control over that weapon. But for prosecutors, we have to show which one person is responsible for possessing that gun. Most of the cases that are ‘no papered’ are cases like that,” Acevedo said.

Both Allen and Racine agreed it’s important to have all that context to help police improve.

“As a policymaker, we need to know that,” Allen said. “If the no-papering decision was because there wasn’t enough evidence, I know the chief wants to know that, so that they can think about with MPD how best to train. If it was because it was an unconstitutional stop, they need to know that so they can train and make sure that they correct that. If there’s other pieces of information, they need to know that.”

Allen also said of the two-thirds of cases that do get charged, the conviction rate is only 57%.

“We regularly meet on this,” Racine said, adding that a plan is in the works for 24/7 hotline to a juvenile-crimes prosecutor so “we can talk about what’s necessary in order to try to shore up the arrest and shore up the evidence so that … cases are not dismissed in the first instance by courts.”

Allen noted that changes to gun laws in Virginia mean the neighboring commonwealth is no longer the biggest source of illegal guns in the city.

“Virginia changes its law, and all of a sudden North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia — that’s where we start to see those guns,” said Allen.

He also said the use of “ghost guns” — essentially, kits that people put together themselves — continues to increase.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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