May 19, 2005
By Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
When the federal government was small, it
Indeed, it focused exclusively on big issues. For example, when the
Constitution was written, it listed only three federal crimes.
Today there are more than 4,000.
Where once our national government concerned itself with
preventing only counterfeiting, piracy and treason, it's now
involved in measuring the length of lobster tails and prosecuting
importers if those tails are too short. All this is a relatively
new development. Almost half of all federal crimes have been added
to the criminal code since 1970.
And Congress may be about to make this bad situation even
Recently the House of Representatives approved a gang deterrence
measure. The Senate is considering a similar bill. Either would
make a number of gang-related crimes federal offenses.
Now, we're all opposed to gang violence. But let's remember that
such activity -- shooting, drug running, gun trafficking -- already
is illegal in every state. Turning gangland violence into a federal
offense doesn't guarantee we'll have less violence; it simply means
we'll be trying defendants in a different venue.
Such measures are usually just a way for federal lawmakers to look
effective. They pass a law, can say they've "solved" a problem, and
move on. But the federalization of the law has real
For example, most would agree that the FBI is stretched thin these
days. But instead of focusing on real national law-enforcement
priorities, federal agents spend too much time and effort
investigating crimes that should be left to local and state
officers. If we make gang violence a federal crime, that trend will
Meanwhile, local officials get a free pass. With cases being moved
to federal court, the responsibility for prosecuting criminals
shifts to U.S. attorneys, so local police and prosecutors get left
out of the process. We shouldn't be undermining local officials. We
should be empowering them to crack down on criminals.
A closer look at the Senate bill reveals two key provisions that
are particularly bad.
The first provision, Section 201, would be a major step toward
turning all double murders into federal crimes. It would become a
federal offense to kill someone, cross a state line and kill
someone else. Of course, such killings are illegal already and in
many states are punishable by death. It's difficult to see how
making double murder a federal offense would deter anyone.
In fact, this measure seems to be aimed specifically at John Allen
Muhammad. He and his associate Lee Boyd Malvo allegedly used a
sniper's rifle to kill people in Maryland, Virginia and the
District of Columbia in 2002. But the Muhammad case actually proves
there's no need for another law.
He's already been convicted of murder in Virginia and sentenced to
death. While on death row, he may face further charges in Maryland.
Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the killings, has been handed a
life sentence without the chance of parole. The system already has
worked well, convicting these killers without any federal
Another provision of the bill would define a "criminal street gang"
as any association of three or more people who attempt to commit
two crimes within 10 years. One of those crimes is obstruction of
justice, which of course is what landed Martha Stewart in prison.
That means that, if anyone in her company were to be convicted of
obstruction of justice in the years ahead, Martha Stewart Omnimedia
could be considered a gang.
This bill also would have made Enron a gang, which is simply silly.
That company may well have been a criminal enterprise, but it
wasn't a criminal street gang.
Crime prevention truly begins at home. Throughout American history,
local and state officials have investigated and tried most
criminals. Let's keep it that way and free up federal officials to
focus on truly national issues, such as protecting the homeland
Feulner is president of the Heritage
When the federal government was small, it thought big.Indeed, it focused exclusively on big issues.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
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