The Justice Department is expected to dole out $1 million to local law enforcement agencies this spring as part of a broad effort to stop gun violence in the region, said Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
The money probably will go, in part, toward allowing city and county commonwealth's attorneys to hire prosecutors to focus on gun crimes, McNulty said. His office also will look to add a prosecutor.
McNulty has made gun crime a priority in his office. While director of policy at the Justice Department in the early 1990s, he helped to develop Project Triggerlock, which required U.S. attorneys to dedicate a prosecutor to gun cases. Then, while chief counsel for a House subcommittee, he drafted a 1998 law that toughened penalties for possessing a gun in the course of other federal crimes.
McNulty recently returned from a national conference on fighting gun violence.
"I just believe that individuals who would be armed and ready to take another person's life have got to be at the top of the list for law enforcement," said McNulty, who ranks the issue as a top priority along with major terrorism cases that his office has prosecuted since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The gathering that drew McNulty and local Virginia law enforcement drew a wide range of people, including a Fairfax County police officer and a prosecutor from Newport News.
The meeting, the Project Safe Neighborhoods national conference in Philadelphia, was sponsored by the Justice Department in partnership with other law enforcement groups. It tried to coordinate national and local efforts to crack down on gun violence.
Unveiled by President Bush in May 2001, the project is the administration's effort to prosecute more gun cases and improve training and technology in law enforcement without drafting contentious new gun-control laws.
It is modeled partly on Virginia's Project Exile, an anti-gun crime program developed in Richmond in 1997 and expanded statewide. Though Project Exile has been copied elsewhere and credited with reducing killings in Richmond by more than 30 percent, a recent study concluded that the program was not responsible for the decrease and that it probably would have happened anyway as crime fell nationwide.
Although Democrats have supported much of Project Safe Neighborhoods, they have also said it is insufficient without new gun-control laws. Administration officials cite reams of statistics to show that the program is working.
Federal gun prosecutions rose 20 percent nationally from 2001 to 2002, Justice Department figures show, while the program has deployed 207 new federal prosecutors and 550 new state and local prosecutors to focus on gun crimes.
"People are energized by this, and it's not just because federal dollars are coming but because it's a good and simple program," said Reagan Dunn, the program's national coordinator for the Justice Department. He organized the three-day conference, which attracted 1,400 law enforcement officials and featured seminars on such subjects as prosecutorial and policing tactics, statistical measures and youth education.
McNulty, whose office added four new anti-gun prosecutors last year and is about to hire a fifth to focus on juvenile gun crime, could not provide local statistics on gun prosecutions. But he said they are increasing, and he credited Project Safe Neighborhoods.
McNulty would naturally be a fan. He put together the group that developed the program at Justice while working at the department early in this Bush administration.
McNulty can back his praise with bucks because his office is deciding how to distribute the $1 million Justice Department grant.
He is also helping to decide how to spend $350,000 earmarked for a statewide media advertising campaign.
The message, he says, will be: "There is hard time for gun crime. You need to think first before you carry."
McNulty discused how to spend the money with local officials during a meeting at a Philadelphia hotel. He said that this and other sessions at the conference were "a boost for the system. It sent people back out into the communities saying, 'Wow, we really are serious about this.' "