Preparing for a new round of skirmishes in Congress over gun control, President Clinton plans to announce a substantial increase in funding for enforcement of existing gun control laws today and will hail what administration officials described as a 25 percent increase in prosecutions for federal firearms law violations.
Clinton will announce the $280 million initiative at a community center in Boston, the location of an aggressive federal, state and local law enforcement program targeted at crimes involving guns.
Bruce Reed, Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser, said yesterday that the new money would add 300 firearms agents and 200 firearms inspectors to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). It would also fund the hiring of about 100 prosecutors in U.S. attorneys' offices across the country to concentrate on firearms violations and pay most of the cost of hiring 1,000 new state and local prosecutors, whose primary responsibility would be prosecuting gun-related crimes, Reed said.
The new funding would be for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and, according to Reed, would be "the largest national firearms enforcement initiative in history."
The initiative also was the Clinton administration's response to gun control critics, who argued during last year's congressional debates that there was no need for new gun control laws because the administration was doing such a poor job of enforcing existing laws.
"If Congress is as serious as we are about fighting gun crime, they should put their money where their mouth is and give us additional resources to do even more than we have," Reed said. "The gun lobby has always raised this issue at the same time they've fought to deny the ATF the resources it needs to do its job."
James J. Baker, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist, said the organization supported increased efforts to enforce federal gun laws but that he could not comment on the Clinton initiative without knowing its details.
"I'm glad that the president has finally agreed with the NRA that enforcing federal firearms laws makes sense," he said. "We've been pushing for more enforcement of existing laws, and it's unfortunate that it took him until the seventh year of his term to finally take that seriously."
"The president has proved adept at changing his position," Baker added. "When we see the detailed budget we'll know if he has truly changed."
The two sides in the gun control debate remain at odds over how aggressively the administration has pursued violations of firearms laws. According to Reed, 5,500 firearms cases were prosecuted by U.S. attorneys in 1999, a 25 percent increase over the 4,391 federal prosecutions in 1998. The 1999 prosecutions also exceeded, for the first time during the Clinton administration, the 4,754 federal firearms prosecutions in 1992, the last year before Clinton took office.
However, White House officials have always argued that total federal, state and local firearms prosecutions have been steadily climbing during Clinton's tenure.
"This is an absolute increase [in federal prosecutions since 1992] in a period when gun crime has dropped by more than a third," Reed said. "This should put to rest once and for all the gun lobby's phony argument. We've cracked down on gun crime at the same time we're pressing to strengthen the gun laws."
But Baker expressed skepticism about the numbers and, citing a Syracuse University study released last year, accused the administration of "presiding over the sharpest decline in the enforcement of existing federal gun laws of any administration." He said the study showed that during Clinton's first seven years in office, prosecutions for federal firearms violations declined by 43 percent.
Reed said the initiative to be announced today will include $150 million to hire the 1,000 new state and local prosecutors, with state and local governments required to provide 15 percent in matching funds. He said the proposal will also include $30 million to expand a national program of ballistics testing of munitions used in crimes, $10 million in new money for local media campaigns on gun violence and safety and $10 million for development of "smart gun" technologies that could limit a gun's use to its owner or other authorized users.