Public Safety

Firearms cases remain priority for Iowa federal prosecutors

Gun-related charges account for nearly half of total cases brought

U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan speaks Feb. 27, 2018, at a news conference in Cedar Rapids, highlighting cases involving unin
U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan speaks Feb. 27, 2018, at a news conference in Cedar Rapids, highlighting cases involving unintentional shootings by people who were in illegal possession of guns. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Federal prosecutors have made gun-related crimes their priority for the last few years and this year is no different: Statistics show that nearly half of all cases charged in the Northern District of Iowa involved firearms.

U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan told The Gazette he is “proud of that fact because it reflects the priorities” of the Cedar Rapids office, as well as those of U.S. Department of Justice. He considers many of these cases as “prevention” of future violence because they include offenders nabbed for illegally possessing firearms and ammunition before a shooting actually happens.

Cases of those charged with buying weapons for others who can’t legally have firearms — “straw purchasers” — could also prevent shootings because the buyers could lead law enforcement to the intended owners.

Convicted drug users, drug traffickers, domestic abusers and other felons cannot legally have guns. Many of these firearm offenses can result in lengthy prison sentences, depending on how many weapons, previous convictions and quantity of drugs a defendant may have.

“Possession of firearms while dealing drugs is just a recipe for disaster,” Deegan said. “Somebody with impaired judgment has no business with a firearm.”

This year, more than 500 accused federal domestic abusers with firearms were charged nationwide; 20 of those were from this district.

“Our office is dedicated to making our community safer by prosecuting the most dangerous offenders,” Deegan said. “That includes domestic abusers who unlawfully possess guns or ammunition.”

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Deegan pointed out statistics show that domestic violence offenders pose a high risk of homicide. Domestic abusers with guns in the home are five times more likely to kill their partners.

The number of firearm cases prosecuted in the Northern District this year is 164 of 357 total cases. The numbers show a steady increase over five years. In 2019, there were 189 firearms cases out of 428 total; 166 of 437 in 2018; 103 of 425 in 2017; 90 of 388 in 2016; and 99 of 392 in 2015.

Deegan said the novel coronavirus affected the number of overall cases this year because there have been fewer referrals from city and county law enforcement. Those agencies typically send most of their gun cases to federal prosecutors.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has a collaborative partnership with the state prosecutors and law enforcement in this district, which includes task forces of various departments and Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman agreed, saying the department’s relationship with Deegan’s office is “very strong and open.”

“I have been contacted on numerous occasions by Mr. Deegan and offered whatever assistance I can to address incidents of gun violence and associated crimes,” Jerman said. “I value this relationship and the actions his office is taking to prosecute the cases that we request.”

Jerman said the department began referring certain cases that involved serious, habitual offenders who warrant more prison time to Deegan’s office.

Deegan said he is eager for the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network — referred to as NIBIN — to get up and running at the Cedar Rapids Police Department. The system is a “leads generator” that compares ballistic evidence — firearm shell casings — to aid in solving shootings. Deegan worked with ATF and the police department to acquire funding.

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Jerman said the department will serve as a regional repository for entering evidence into the system, which will allow other departments — Iowa City, Marion and Waterloo — to use the tool. Officers are in the process of training.

Deegan and Jerman both said that shell casings are found many times at the scene of a reported shooting but no suspects may be caught. So having the ability to compare the evidence with others locally, regionally or nationally can generate new leads.

Law enforcement in this area has relied on a system at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Crime Lab for many years. But Deegan noted that having a system in this area will give authorities quicker turnarounds on vital leads.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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