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Under fire from NRA, Justice Department defends rate of gun prosecutions


March 17, 2000
Web posted at: 8:16 a.m. EST (1316 GMT)

In this story:

Justice: State gun prosecutions must be counted

Reno: 'Worst rhetoric I have heard'


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Justice Department officials are defending the rate of federal gun prosecutions and emphasizing the help federal officials give to local police in the wake of renewed National Rifle Association attacks on the enforcement of existing gun laws.

A senior Justice Department official said Thursday that it is now standard procedure for the FBI to immediately notify local police departments when a fugitive wanted on other charges walks into a gun shop and is denied a firearms purchase.

Guns under fire

Bea Witzleben, the Justice Department's policy expert on firearms issues, said records show the FBI informed local authorities of unsuccessful attempted purchases by 2,400 fugitives last year.

Witzleben's statements came after increased criticism by the NRA on the Clinton administration over proposed gun legislation. The gun lobby said that before the administration enacts more restrictions on guns, it should enforce existing federal gun laws.

NRA President Wayne LaPierre said in a television interview Wednesday that because the administration has not enforced current laws, the president is responsible for the death of former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.

Responding to President Bill Clinton's call that LaPierre "look into the eyes" of parents whose children were killed by gun violence, LaPierre said: "Has he looked into the eyes of Ricky Byrdsong's family? Because that blood is on his hands."

Byrdsong was gunned down by a white supremacist who was denied a gun because he failed a background check. Police say the suspect in the Byrdsong case obtained a gun elsewhere and went on a rampage that left two dead.

The FBI provides background checks in 24 states; in the 26 other states where state employees provide the checks, there is no systematic way of determining how often local officials are notified.

Illinois, the state where Byrdsong was killed, is one of the 26 states where state employees, not the FBI, conduct background checks.

Witzleben said legal issues -- including privacy concerns about information from military and mental health records -- have prevented the FBI from providing information to local authorities on gun purchase denials when the would-be purchaser was not a fugitive from justice.

She said that records of all denied gun purchases in the 24 FBI-administered states are provided to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for use in investigations.

Last year, 89,000 gun-sale denials in the 24 FBI-administered states were sent to the BATF.

Of that number, slightly less than one-third -- 28,000 -- were sent to field offices for federal agents to pursue or to pass along to local authorities to follow up. About 15,000 of the denials resulted from restraining orders or domestic disturbance cases.

Officials have no available statistics on the number of convictions stemming from the denial of gun purchases.

"We want to try to apprehend those people and take action against them for the most serious crime for which they are eligible for prosecution," Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday.

Justice: State gun prosecutions must be counted

No statistics are available to indicate the number of cases -- if any -- where authorities convicted someone solely on the federal violation of lying on the gun purchase application when the defendant was suspected of more serious crimes for which there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

The Justice Department outlined the extent of federal help to state and local authorities as the NRA renewed its argument that no new gun laws are needed until federal authorities enforce laws already on the books.

Justice and Treasury officials said state prosecutions of gun law violations, often with federal help, must be included in any accurate measure of current enforcement efforts.

According to the Clinton administration:

  • Total federal and state prosecutions on weapons offenses has increased about 25 percent since 1992.

  • Weapons convictions at the state and local levels increased from 20,681 in 1992 to 25,186 in 1999.

  • Federal prosecutions increased from 4,754 in 1992 to 5,500 cases in 1999.

  • Federal prison inmates serving time for firearms and arson charges rose 51 percent from 1993 to 1998.

  • BATF brought 3,619 criminal cases against 5,620 defendants in firearms cases in 1998.

Reno: 'Worst rhetoric I have heard'

Reno said federal prosecutors do not have the resources to charge everyone who provides false information on a Brady Act gun application, referring to the background check named after the former White House press secretary who was shot in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and who lobbied for mandatory criminal background checks for handgun purchases.

"What we're trying to do is prioritize them and identify people," she said. "If they're fugitives and we catch them, usually the crime for which they are wanted may be a greater crime than the false statement made on the Brady Act."

Reno urged lowering the rhetoric in the gun debate and chastised LaPierre's comments made Wednesday.

"I have heard an awful lot in the last seven years, but that's about the worst rhetoric that I have heard," Reno told reporters.

At Clinton's urging, House votes to get back to work on gun control
March 15, 2000
Clinton Versus The NRA: Ready, Aim, Fire
March 12, 2000
Clinton advocates parental liability on guns
March 9, 2000
DOJ study links juvenile homicide rate to gun access laws
March 7, 2000
Clinton pushes Congress to pass new gun control legislation
March 7, 2000

CDC Media Relations: Facts About Violence Among Youth and Violence in Schools, Released 4/21/1999
U.S. Department of Justice
National Rifle Association

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