Both Sides Misfire Trading Accusations on Guns

July 7, 2008 - 7:25 PM

( - In the heated battle over restrictive gun measures - with both the Clinton-Gore Administration and the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbing accusations at each other early this week - both sides may be guilty of overheated rhetoric and sloppy statistical analysis.

On Sunday, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre suggested that President Clinton "is willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda." LaPierre said Clinton "had the power to make America safe" by enforcing existing gun laws - but didn't use it.

Said LaPierre, "When America finds out the truth about the disgraceful failure" to prosecute gun crimes, "it's not the NRA they're going to be calling and asking why."

On Monday, while campaigning in Ohio, Clinton called LaPierre's accusations "outrageous and disgusting," and added that "America has to choose" between pro-gun Republicans and anti-gun Democrats.

"We ought not to engage in this kind of political smear tactics," he added.

According to LaPierre, the Clinton administration has persistently refused to enforce existing gun laws, preferring to grandstand with every new tragedy and clamor for unnecessary new criminal statutes. The administration accuses the NRA of deliberately misreading crime statistics and ignoring the general trend of lower rates of violent crime in making its case.

Both sides may be right.

LaPierre and NRA allies say that under the Clinton administration, federal gun prosecutions have fallen by close to 50 percent, from 6,629 in 1992 - the last year George Bush was president - to 3,758 in 1998. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) cited similar figures late in 1999 to demonstrate his contention that the president was "soft on crime."

Those figures are true - so far as they go, which may not be far. Criminal prosecutions for weapons violations have fallen dramatically in the past six years, though the administration's figures show them rising in 1999. But so have the number of weapons cases referred to federal prosecutors, from 9,885 in 1992 to 5,510 in 1998.

The percentage of referred cases that were ultimately prosecuted was 83 percent in 1998, dropping to 66 percent in 1996 and rising slightly to 73 percent in 1998 - a ten percent overall drop, but not quite the alarming trend LaPierre and associates frequently refer to.

And rarely have NRA's associates note that the overall crime rate, including the overall rate of violent crime, has fallen dramatically in the past six years, another factor that must be included in any discussion of the number of criminal prosecutions.

Questioning the NRA's use of judicial statistics, however, does not necessarily mean defending the administration's record on crime.

Despite the White House frequent claim to have put "100,000 more cops on the street" through federal grants, staff and funding for federal criminal investigative agencies and federal prosecutors has declined under the Clinton administration.

For example, staffing cuts have reduced the payroll of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) by 18 percent over six years. As a result, the ATF - which investigates more gun crimes than any other federal agency - has seen the percentage of cases it can close with a referral to a prosecutor drop by nearly 44 percent.

In fact, staffing problems among federal criminal investigators go right to the top. The position of Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, who oversees federal investigators and prosecutors, remain unfilled from 1995 to 1998 because of Justice Department delays in identifying a suitable candidate. And the eventual nominee, James Robinson, was a former law school professor with only three years of experience as a criminal prosecutor.

Above all, the Clinton administration has demonstrated a consistent willingness to use crime and gun issues for political advantage, rather than compromise with congressional Republicans in the interest of passing meaningful legislation.

Last year, congressional Democrats refused to pass a compromise juvenile justice bill that would have increased criminal penalties for violent youth offenders unless it included strict gun control proposals. When the bill was tabled, the White House used its failure as a political stick to beat Republicans in his weekly radio addresses.

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