More firearms cases head to federal court thanks to task force

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — More gun-related crimes in Shelby County are winding up in federal court.

Every week, a task force made up of local, state and federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors sit around a table and decide what gun-related cases should head to state court and what cases should be prosecuted in federal court, where defendants can face 10  to 15 years with no parole.

"We want to focus on repeat violent offenders, escalating domestic violence offenders or individuals who use a firearm to commit another violent offense," said U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Tennessee, Michael Dunavant.

It's called the Project Safe Neighborhoods task force.

The initiative was launched in Memphis in 2002, but was re-energized by the U.S. Attorney General's office in fall 2017.

Dunavant said he quickly got behind it.

"Since last October when I took office at the U.S. Attorney's Office, we have increased the number of firearm cases filed in federal court by more than 59 percent and the number of defendants charged with firearms offenses has increased more than 73 percent," he told WREG. "Since its inception, the PSN task force has reviewed over 28,000 cases where ammunition or a firearm was involved. That’s since 2002."

Dunavant said two years after the task force initially launched, Memphis saw one of its lowest homicide rates in nearly a decade.

He predicts we'll see similar trends.

"We know it's a violence reduction strategy that works," Dunavant said. "We know most violent crimes are committed in Memphis, Shelby County and West Tennessee using firearms. Many times those firearms are possessed and obtained illegally."

District Attorney Amy Weirich echoed Dunavant.

"These are some of the worst of the worst offenders, and we want to make sure we remove them from the streets," she said. "The piece that is new to this is about two years. We asked the U.S. Attorney’s office to start looking at those offenders who had previous convictions of domestic violence with a misdemeanor charge but were now caught with a gun. Under the law, they can be prosecuted federally."

Shelby County deputies and ATF agents dedicated personnel for the task force.

Memphis Police said they have nine people working with PSN.

"With limited resources, we want to use our resources wisely, and we think assigning officers to PSN is a move in the right direction," he said.