The DFL’s misguided effort to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes

We have been sounding the alarm that the DFL-led Legislature is poised this session to further weaken sentencing for criminal offenders.

Yesterday HF 4277 was introduced into the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. If passed into law, it will send the wrong message to violent offenders, by eliminating the mandatory minimum sentence for using a firearm during the commission of a crime. 

The bill effectively repeals statute 609.11 which currently mandates a minimum sentence for criminals who use a firearm or dangerous weapon during the commission of a crime. It’s one of the few instances in our statutes where a mandatory minimum sentence is established, and it was intentionally created to send a strong message to criminals that the use of a weapon will result in significant consequences.

We are either serious about addressing gun violence or we are not. This bill moves us decidedly away from a serious posture.

609.11 mandates that on a first conviction, if a criminal used or possessed a firearm while in the commission of a crime, the judge must sentence the offender to three years in prison with no early release. A second conviction requires a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. 

With every statute, there are exceptions and ways for the court to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence. Sadly, in Minnesota that happens far too frequently, and I’ve written about those unacceptably high departure rates many times — read one such article here.

Despite the decision by some judges to depart, the mandatory minimum sentences are still valuable as they put the “certain” in “swift and certain punishment” — a universally supported understanding of effective deterrence. The mandatory minimum sentencing also honors the all too frequently forgotten victims of violent crime.

Another element of HF 4277 is the creation of a Mandatory Minimum Sentence Task Force, which would examine and report to the Legislature the effectiveness of such sentencing.

This represents a duplication of efforts and authority, as the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is already in place and more than capable to inquire, debate, and report on the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing. A new task force only dilutes the efforts and makes following and commenting on the issue even more difficult for Minnesotans.

While it has yet to drop, it is anticipated the DFL will also soon introduce legislation to decrease the penalties for being a felon in possession of a firearm because, according to progressives, those penalties along with 609.11 penalties are creating racial “disparities” in our prisons. 

This is a horribly misguided approach to addressing the level of gun violence in our state, as it serves to excuse criminal behavior based on the race of offenders. The penalties in place for being a felon in possession of a firearm are stern (a five-year sentence) for a reason — our society has drawn the line on multiple “second chances” involving firearms, irrespective of race.

Reducing penalties for illegally possessing or using firearms during the commission of a crime is harmful to public safety and would be especially harmful for communities of color which have been reeling from the effects of gun violence for far too long.

If these issues are of concern to you, consider making your opinions known to the members of the respective House and Senate Public Safety Committees found here and here.