Prosecution of Federal Gun Offenses Dropped in Clinton Administration

Article excerpt

The nearly 1.5 million people likely to face an armed assailant this year will most probably be looking into the eyes of a young white male, over 18, carrying a .38-caliber pistol he bought through a drug dealer or a fence.

This young assailant is among a growing number of criminals who have increasingly armed themselves over the past several years despite an overall drop in the nation's crime rate. More criminals are now looking to get concealable, large-caliber semiautomatic pistols.

The confrontation most likely will occur in an urban area, and according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the assailant is probably on probation, parole or pretrial release. About a third of them have a felony conviction.

But the chances he will face federal weapons charges - if caught - are less likely now than 10 years ago. The number of referrals by the federal government to prosecutors in gun cases declined by 44 percent under the Clinton administration.

Why? The administration, while vigorously pursuing a public anti-gun posture, has backed off from an aggressive crackdown on illegal guns started under President Bush. Seeking to avoid a duplication of state and local programs, the federal government has focused on the flow of guns into the community and not their use.

That shift in policy was mandated by a 1994 Office of Management and Budget memo, causing the Justice Department to switch its focus from street-level criminals to gun traffickers. The shift is described in the U.S. Attorneys Annual Statistical Report, saying prosecutions under "Project Triggerlock," a major anti-gun program established under Mr. Bush, dropped from 7,048 in 1992 to 3,807 in 1998.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said Mr. Clinton "would rather make NRA rhetoric the issue rather than his own policies." He said Mr. Clinton owes the parents of children killed by guns an explanation of why federal gun laws are being so poorly enforced.

"I think he should look them in the eye and explain why he won't enforce the laws against crack dealers with guns and take them off the street," he said.

Republicans have complained that the administration ignored existing laws while pressing for symbolic measures such as a ban on possession of guns near schools and banning the transfer of weapons to juveniles. …