President Clinton's newest gun-control proposals will center on improving enforcement of existing gun laws - a move calculated to disarm criticism by the National Rifle Association and others that the administration is lax on prosecuting gun crimes.
Mr. Clinton's plan, expected to be unveiled today, will call for a 20 percent increase in the number of agents and inspectors at the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF), and extra money for 1,000 additional prosecutors at the federal, state, and local levels, whose focus will be gun-related crime.
"What's interesting is that it's a turn away from the purely legislative approach of the last few years to focus on law enforcement," says gun-control analyst Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Cortland. "It could be a brilliant stroke by the Clinton people."
Gun control is an issue that resonates with two-thirds of Americans - a number that jumped after the recent spate of school shootings. Already, Clinton has made gun control a part of his legacy, having pushed Congress to adopt the Brady law (which requires a waiting period and a background check for handgun buyers) and banning 19 types of assault weapons.
More recently, however, his proposals have languished. Last year, Congress failed to agree on background checks for buyers at gun shows. The administration has now threatened to join several cities and counties in lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
The many faces of gun control
By seeking a budget increase of more than $280 million for gun-crime investigation and prosecution, the Clinton administration is trying another avenue to reduce gun crime. "The president wants to address this problem in any way he can," says an administration official.
At an anticrime event today in Boston, Clinton was expected to outline several gun-related proposals in his 2001 budget, including:
*Expanding the national gun-tracing program from 38 cities to 50, and helping 250 additional jurisdictions on how to use the tracing system. "This is a first step toward the national goal of tracing every crime gun," says Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy adviser.
*Tripling funds to expand "gun fingerprinting," by which the ATF and the FBI can identify guns by bullet casings - which are found at crime scenes much more often than guns are.
An example of this effort is a pilot program with Georgia-based gunmaker Glock Inc. The company now test fires every handgun it makes and gives the ATF the "fingerprint" from each. In theory, the fingerprint database will allow investigators to trace a gun from factory to purchase through a single bullet casing - and without having the gun itself.
*Requesting $10 million to subsidize "smart gun" research. The technology would allow a gun to fire only when held by its authorized user, and its intent is to prevent accidental deaths and gun theft. The gun-accident death rate of American children is nine times higher than that of 25 other industrialized nations combined.
The president was also expected to announce a 16 percent increase in federal firearms prosecutions since the end of the Bush administration. "This puts to rest once and for all the NRA's central argument that we don't need new gun laws, we just need to enforce the old ones," says Mr. Reed. "We are enforcing the old ones."
This seems to contradict a University of Syracuse study, released in August, that shows a 43 percent drop in federal weapons cases since 1992. (In the past, the Clinton administration has argued that state and local prosecutors are taking up the slack).
The NRA is dubious
While the NRA welcomes the plan to beef up law-enforcement personnel, it questions the plan's integrity. "I'm so cynical about these guys in this area. It's hard to respond," says Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president. "I watched them for seven years, and they've never been serious ... about prosecutions. I'm glad they're proposing some money and additional prosecutors, but ... I think it's simply smoke and mirrors in an election year."
Mr. LaPierre says federal prosecutions are nowhere near the numbers they should be - in any US city. For instance, only 21 people were jailed last year for gun crimes in New Orleans, a city where 230 gun murders occurred, he says. The administration's interest in law enforcement, he adds, is "a day late and a dollar short for the people six feet under."
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