President Clinton prodded Congress yesterday to enact tougher sanctions governing gun possession and hate crimes, saying the nation still suffers too many violent acts even though the overall crime rate is falling.

In a White House speech, the president cited last year's fatal beating of a gay man in Wyoming and the dragging death of a black Texan as proof that Congress should stiffen penalties for crimes motivated by the victim's race or sexual orientation.

"Hundreds of Americans, like young Matthew Shepard in Wyoming or James Byrd in Texas, have been killed or injured simply because of who they are--because of their race, their faith, because they're gay," Clinton said. "And I think this is important for America and important for our leadership at home and around the world."

The Senate has voted to add crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability to offenses covered by federal law. The law provides for tougher sentences and allows federal prosecutors to pursue a case if local officials choose not to. But the House version of the spending bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments does not include the gay-rights provision.

"It seems to me very hard to make the case that America, for our own sanity and our own humanity, and for what we owe to the rest of the world, should not pass strong hate-crimes legislation and do it without delay this year," Clinton said. "If we're trying to make peace in Kosovo and Bosnia, what are we trying to do? Trying to get people over their ethnic and religious hatreds."

The president also renewed his call for the House to adopt Senate language that would require would-be buyers at gun shows to undergo criminal background checks. Such checks are required at gun stores.

"I say to the Republican leadership, I know this is a tough issue for you," he said. "I know that nobody likes to make the NRA [National Rifle Association] mad looking toward the next election."

"Over the coming months," he said, the White House's new National Campaign Against Youth Violence "will roll out a major media campaign, begin supporting anti-violence concerts and town hall meetings, in-school and after-school programs and sponsor a city-by-city effort to shine a spotlight on the local initiatives that are producing the most promising results."