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Posted: 5/13/2003 11:49:17 PM EST
[Last Edit: 5/13/2003 11:50:02 PM EST by warlord]
[url=http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/14/politics/14GUNS.html]Justice Dept. Plans to Step Up Gun-Crime Prosecutions[/url] May 14, 2003 Justice Dept. Plans to Step Up Gun-Crime Prosecutions By ERIC LICHTBLAU WASHINGTON, May 13 — Justice Department officials said today that they planned to step up prosecutions of gun crimes as part of a new initiative, even as a private study said prosecutors had "ignored" a vast majority of gun crimes. The study, to be released here on Wednesday by Americans for Gun Safety, found that 2 percent of federal gun crimes resulted in prosecutions and that gun traffickers were rarely prosecuted. Justice Department officials disputed some findings in the report. They said the department had made "dramatic increases" in prosecuting gun crimes since Attorney General John Ashcroft made that a top priority when he took office in 2001, with overall prosecutions increasing more than 32 percent as of the latest tally. The report was issued as supporters of gun rights push for legislation to protect firearms manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits and Congress is considering whether to extend the nine-year-old ban on assault weapons. The White House favors keeping the prohibition against the possesion and sale of such weapons, a stance that has put him at odds with the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress. Today, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, said he saw little chance that the House would vote this year to extend the ban. "The votes in the House are not there to reauthorize it," Mr. DeLay said. Law enforcement officials and gun control groups are divided on a strategy to combat gun violence, which kills more than 10,000 people a year. The Bush administration has focused on two problems, felons who possess guns illegally and people who use firearms in committing crimes. The new study, which analyzed information from the Justice Department from 2000 to 2002, found that illegal possession and use during a crime accounted for 85 percent of the more than 25,000 federal firearms cases in that period. Gun control groups say by focusing so extensively on street crimes, the department under Mr. Ashcroft and his predecessor, Janet Reno, has largely ignored black market dealers, corrupt shop owners, "straw purchase" distributors and others who are central to the problem of illegal guns. The report cited 20 "rarely enforced" federal gun crimes. "There's a huge enforcement gap in areas where the federal government has a unique responsibility to prosecute cases," said Jim Kessler, the policy and research director for Americans for Gun Safety who is a co-author of the study. It found that although people younger than 18 committed an estimated 93,000 violent crimes, federal prosecutors brought 24 cases for selling firearms to minors. Although an estimated 420,000 firearms were reported stolen in that period, prosecutors filed 524 cases related to the possession, transfer or sale of stolen firearms, the report said. An estimated 450,000 would-be buyers were found to have lied about their histories and had their applications rejected, but fewer than 1,600 were prosecuted for lying in their background checks, the report added. Justice Department officials said they had concentrated prosecutions on felons and people who used guns in crimes because they represented the most dangerous owners. The officials said Mr. Ashcroft had also sought to step up prosecutions of would-be owners who lied on background checks, and the number of prosecutions for false statements rose 8 percent last year, officials said. "We're seeing increases across the board in prosecutions, and we are not neglecting any cases," said Reagan Dunn, who coordinates the antigun crime initiative that Mr. Ashcroft began in 2001. At a hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, federal and local law enforcement officials said they were pleased with the gun initiative and were planning to expand on the progress of the last two years. The department plans to commit $900 million to the initiative over three years and has added more than 600 prosecutors and agents to aid in the effort, officials said. The United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Paul J. McNulty, told the panel that although it was too early to judge the program, it had already produced "unprecedented coordination" among officials. But two professors who specialize in gun crime and also appeared before the committee questioned the effectiveness of the program. Jens Ludwig, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said although advocates pointed to a pilot program in Virginia as a model, that program "has not been as successful as is widely believed." Although his comment drew a rebuke from Mr. McNulty, the professor said his own research did not support the idea that a push to remove illegal guns from the street had contributed greatly to a significant drop in firearms murders in the late 1990's in the Richmond, Va., metropolitan region. Another witness, Alfred Blumstein, an expert on violent crime at Carnegie Mellon University, said he believed that the Justice Department had failed to develop a coordinated approach to gun crime. "We are still woefully ignorant of the mix of factors contributing to gun violence and how that mix varies across locality," Professor Blumstein said. Although he was not involved in the study, he said he agreed that prosecutors had not paid enough attention to cutting off the black market. "We're getting the low-hanging fruit," the professor said. "The other piece of the puzzle we're not really touching on is the whole gun distribution network." Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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