President Bush, dressing up last year's crime package in this year's surge of patriotism over the Persian Gulf War, called on the Democratic Congress yesterday to honor the nation's veterans by giving them "an America where it is safe to walk on the streets."
Bush's crime package, sent to Congress yesterday, contains some new twists but offers basically the same elements as a proposal sent to Capitol Hill in 1989 and last year. "The truth is the vast majority of these core proposals are identical to those that we sent up two years ago," Bush told an audience of law enforcement officials brought to the White House for the unveiling of the package.
In his appearance before a joint congressional session last week to report on the war, Bush called for passage of vital legislation, such as this crime package, within 100 days.
The major elements of the legislation include reviving the federal death penalty to cover a broader range of crimes from serious drug offenses to treason, espionage and certain terrorist acts; altering court rules that ban illegally seized evidence to allow such evidence at trial if police acted in "good faith" in seizing it; and an effort to strictly limit the number of appeals convicted federal prisoners can file.
What is principally new between last year -- when controversial elements such as these were stripped out of the bill in Congress -- and this year is the president's soaring popularity in the wake of the gulf victory and his repeated references to veterans of that war in promoting the package.
"We stood by our troops and today it's time to stand up for America's prosecutors and police," Bush said after opening his speech with a tribute to the Desert Storm veterans.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested that war victory or not, Bush is likely to have the same problem this year with his crime package that he had last year. Biden said the Democrats are "ready right now" to approve virtually all the elements of the White House bill, as long as Bush will accept new federal controls on assault weapons and more federal funding for state and local law enforcement. Bush rejected those Democrat-proposed elements in 1989 and 1990.
"One of the biggest reasons the returning veterans are not safe on the street is because of these assault weapons," Biden said, not because too many appeals are being filed by inmates or because a federal death penalty is lacking for some crimes.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee on crime, and other gun-control supporters have called a news conference for today to announce a major new push for the so-called Brady bill -- named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary James Brady, seriously wounded during the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life -- imposing a seven-day waiting period on handgun purchases.
Among the new elements in Bush's bill are proposals to impose the death penalty for crimes involving "weapons of mass destruction," expanded mandatory sentences for violators of federal firearms laws, and a special exception on top of the good faith exemption to the "exclusionary rule" that would permit firearms to be used as court evidence even if they were seized illegally by federal agents.
To prevent abuse, federal agents who illegally seized firearms could be subject to possible administrative penalties, including suspension, administered by the attorney general.
The "weapons of mass destruction" provision would cover the use of bombs, gas or radioactive materials in crimes here or abroad and is aimed at Iraqi terrorists and other groups that might use such methods, said Andrew G. McBride, associate deputy attorney general. "If somebody blew up a Macy's or Metro Center right now, there's no death penalty," he said.
The firearms proposals include a five-year mandatory sentence for any person previously convicted of a drug offense or violent crime caught possessing a gun, doubling to 10 years the mandatory jail time for using a semi-automatic firearm in a violent crime, and increasing the penalties for theft of a firearm or knowingly making a false statement while buying a firearm. These are all supported by the National Rifle Association, but NRA lobbyist James Jay Baker said yesterday that the group is opposed to another provision that would bar the sale of gun magazines that enable the firing of more than 15 rounds.