At the end of last year, Indianapolis faced a disturbing trend: a persistent uptick in killings that surpassed the per capita homicide rate of Chicago. In an effort to get a handle on the problem, officials studied a six-month period in 2014, and found that 80 percent of the city’s shooters had previous criminal charges. Half of those offenders had weapons violations. Which raised the question: Would stiffer sentences for gun crimes have impacted the city’s homicide rate?

Indianapolis’s director of public safety, David Wantz, tells The Trace that when officials dug deeper into the data, the results confirmed their suspicions: Harsher penalties would have kept behind bars offenders involved in up to 24 of the city’s 70 homicides during the study period, or more than 25 percent, depending on the length of the hypothetical sentence.

Bolstered by those numbers, Indianapolis’s Republican Mayor Greg Ballard advocated for a straightforward solution: stiff mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving firearms. He recently told an Indianapolis TV station that he’d like to impose 20-year minimum prison stays for gun crimes.

Ballard’s tough-on-gun-crime stance comes as other big-city officials push for similar mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in Chicago and Milwaukee, where homicide rates have jumped this year. And last month a bipartisan group of U.S. senators tackling criminal justice reform announced that they hope to bolster sentences for federal gun crimes while avoiding the overly punitive mandatory minimums sentences associated with the War on Drugs.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of mandatory minimum sentences without thinking of the anti-drug fervor of the 1980s and ’90s. In 1986, politicians, seeking to combat urban crime driven by the rise of crack, passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which introduced a variety of mandatory sentences for drugs. Those sentences were subsequently expanded eight years later in a Clinton-era crime bill. Today, it’s widely-acknowledged that the strategy was misguided, as it ensnared too many non-violent, largely African-American offenders and unjustly punished them with draconian sentences.

Some experts believe that officials advocating for mandatory minimum gun sentences are repeating the same mistakes by looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. Frank Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says that such policies create a legal morass for prosecutors and judges. Harsh mandatory sentences strip judges of the ability to exercise discretion when handing down punishment, and they can alternately compel prosecutors to seek hefty sentences for minor offenses, or prevent them from pursuing charges at all if they believe the automatic punishment won’t fit the crime. “This sounds to me like the wonderful folks who brought you the wonderful war on drugs,” says Zimring.

“I’m dealing with 111 homicides in my city this year. I’m not dealing with theory,” says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “I’m dealing with a problem I have to address.”

But city official battling surges in gun violence have little patience for theoretical dilemmas. They point to how tough local gun restrictions do little to curb gun homicides because of a steady flow of firearms from nearby states with lax gun laws. Keep gun offenders locked up, the thinking goes, and those weapons will find fewer buyers, and thus lead to fewer homicides.

“I’m dealing with 111 homicides in my city this year and that’s up a tremendous amount from last year,” says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat and former member of Congress who says he understands the concerns about mandatory minimums. But, he adds, “I’m not dealing with theory. I’m dealing with a problem I have to address.” Barrett has lobbied for a measure in Wisconsin that would impose a mandatory three-year sentence for felons who are caught with an illegal weapon. Under the bill, those with prior felony convictions who commit a crime with a gun would face an automatic eight years behind bars. The measure was approved by the state Assembly and is expected to pass the Wisconsin Senate.

In Indiana, lawmakers have so far balked at Mayor Ballard’s calls for 20-year mandatory sentences. The city is instead pushing for a measure that requires sentences between five and 10 years. Some opponents of the bill echo Zimring’s fears about how such policies void judicial discretion. But Ballard’s administration argues that gun crimes are markedly different than most drug offenses. “Judges don’t like mandatory minimums for drugs because there are aggravating and mitigating circumstances,” says Wantz, Indianapolis’s head of public safety. “But we don’t think there’s a whole lot you can mitigate when you decided to use a weapon in commission of a crime.”

A measure now being considered in the U.S. Senate as part of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act seeks to a strike a balance on punishment for federal gun crimes. (Federal prosecutors can go after criminals with multiple firearms convictions or those who use a firearm to commit a violent crime or to deal or transport drugs.) The bill decreases mandatory minimum sentences for lesser firearms offenses – such as simple possession – but gives judges the ability to impose harsher penalties for more serious crimes carried out with a weapon.

“There’s a recognition that you need to have a big hammer for a lot of these kinds of cases and that there has to be really serious criminal penalties for gun crimes,” says Chelsea Parsons, a guns and crime policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “What this bill tries to do is find that place of balance where your hammer isn’t too big in all cases.”

Kurt Heise, a Republican in the Michigan House of Representatives, is pushing for a measure that would eliminate the state’s mandatory sentences of two years for felony firearms convictions, arguing that the policy only serves to overcrowd prisons. Last year, 579 prisoners in Michigan were serving time solely for a felony firearm convictions, according to the congressman. If the mandatory minimum sentence were eliminated, the state could shut down an equivalent of 1.5 prisons over time, he says. “What that tells me is I’m sending a bunch of men off to jail for two years, out of the job market, where their families are disrupted and they’re going to get inculcated into the prison culture and they’re probably going to come back,” says Heise. “What purpose does it serve?” Heise stressed that judges could still impose the two-year sentence if the case warranted a stiffer sentence.

A 2013 Northwestern University paper reached a similar conclusion. Its authors compiled studies from around the country that showed mandatory minimum sentences filled prisons but didn’t affect crime rates. Instead, communities that hired more police, started youth intervention programs, flooded high-risk areas with cops or gave jobs to troubled teens had marked results in reducing violence, according to the paper.

Despite such research, Milwaukee Mayor Barrett remains steadfast in his belief that mandatory sentences can curb gun violence. “I want the word to hit the street, OK?” says Barrett. “‘Remember here buddy, you’ve committed a violent felony and you’re sitting there with your probation and parole officer, if you get out there with a gun, you’re going to prison.’ Somehow we’ve got to get that word out on the street.”

[Photo: Flickr user Casey Eisenreich]