According to the TRAC database, between 1986 and 1990, his office did not prosecute a single defendant in what it counted as a weapons case. Many other U.S. Attorney offices also reported no weapons prosecutions during those years, but some reported dozens. In 1986, the Eastern District of Missouri prosecuted 37 weapons cases. In 1990, the Northern District of Illinois recorded 62 weapons prosecutions.
In 1991, Sessions’s office prosecuted 31 weapons cases, placing it 29th, by volume, out of the 93 U.S. Attorney offices nationwide. In 1992 and 1993, Sessions and his team picked up the pace of weapons prosecutions, reporting 49 and 54 such cases, respectively. Those totals nonetheless did not move the Southern District of Alabama out of the middle of the pack.
It’s possible that Sessions was referring during his confirmation testimony to his office’s per capita ranking. By that measure, the low-population district rises in the table, placing in the top five for gun prosecutions per person—but only during those three years of Sessions 12-year tenure.
It was in overall prosecutions that the Southern District of Alabama was a clear national leader under Sessions, with a particular emphasis on drug cases. A report by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice argues that Sessions appeared to have “shifted resources toward drug offenses, but away from prosecuting violent crimes.” The report notes that drug cases comprised 40 percent of convictions in Sessions’s district, while such cases made up just 20 percent of the convictions by the two other U.S. Attorney’s offices in Alabama during the same years.
Spokespersons for Sessions and for President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team did not respond to numerous requests to clarify the basis of Sessions’s claim regarding gun prosecutions. Senator Sessions declined to answer a reporter’s question as he left a Senate Republican lunch on Thursday.
The sharp increase in weapons prosecutions in the early 1990s by Sessions’s office and many other U.S. Attorneys around the country appears to have flowed from an initiative known as Project Triggerlock. The effort was spearheaded by Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who served under President George H.W. Bush, to encourage federal prosecutors to prosecute gang members and drug offenders under federal weapons laws that carried stiff mandatory sentences. Of 31 gun cases Sessions’s office prosecuted in 1991, 29 came through Project Triggerlock.
“I thought it was an effective thing, and we worked hard to prosecute those cases,” Sessions said of the program in a 2005 Senate floor speech.
In his testimony on Tuesday, Sessions described Triggerlock as a predecessor to Project Exile, an effort started during the administration of President George W. Bush that likewise involved using federal gun laws to aggressively punish local criminals. Sessions explicitly recommended resurrecting those policies to reduce homicides in cities like Chicago and Baltimore that have seen sharp increases in shootings.