- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

The House yesterday voted overwhelmingly to create a nationwide crackdown on gun crimes, modeled on "Project Exile," created by state and federal officials in Richmond.

"The real heartache, in my judgment, involving so much gun violence is that it involves avoidable tragedies," said Rep. Bill McCollum, Florida Republican and lead sponsor of the bill. "Avoidable in the sense that many gun criminals are back out on the street before they should be and they are then committing additional violent crimes."

The bill, which passed 358-60, creates a $100 million project to expand Project Exile nationally. It offers grants to states that impose a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for using a gun to commit a crime or for felons caught carrying guns.

The bill goes now to the Senate, where Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, introduced an identical bill shortly after the House acted. The White House has not said what it would do with the bill should the Senate pass it, but the president has supported efforts to expand Project Exile. The program in Richmond was created in part by a U.S. attorney appointed by President Clinton.

Virginia and five other states Texas, Florida, Colorado, Louisiana and South Carolina are the only states that have such laws and would qualify for the grants. Backers say the promise of money will lure more states to toughen their laws and could lead Congress to pour more money into the program.

"When you target that rather narrow group of people who carry guns, who shoot other people, and you target a program to those folks and take them off the streets in a disproportionate manner Project Exile you have safer streets," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican and co-sponsor of the bill.

Republicans raced the bill to the floor only two weeks after it was introduced, skipping the Judiciary Committee and using a special set of parliamentary rules to prevent amendments that might slow down the process. Democrats complained bitterly about the speedy process.

Mr. McCollum conceded that Republican leaders were unusually eager to get the bill to the floor.

"April 20 is the anniversary of Columbine [High School shootings]," he said. "I think every one of us wants to see an end to gun violence in this country, and this legislation deals specifically with that purpose."

Richmond officials credit Project Exile in part for a 46 percent drop in homicides since 1997 and a 65 percent drop in reported crimes involving guns. Both the National Rifle Association and Handgun Control Inc., normally sharply at odds, endorse Project Exile. Both sent senior officials to the ceremony announcing a version of Project Exile in Denver last year.

An NRA official said yesterday's vote "perfectly exemplifies" the debate over guns.

"While Bill Clinton was performing in the theater of press conference politics, [the House] was passing legislation to take a proven, tough law enforcement program nationwide," said James Jay Baker, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. He said the House vote "highlights the difference between political theater and proven, effective public policy."

Although 149 of the 211 Democrats broke ranks and voted for the bill, party leaders harshly criticized it.

"Although this sounds good, and makes for good slogans, it is not good policy," said Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the Democrat's leading spokesman against the bill.

He and other Democrats argued that mandatory minimum sentencing is a costly and ineffective way to deter crime. They also complained that the bill is an unfair federal mandate on states, forcing them to adopt mandatory minimum sentences in order to qualify for money.

Other Democrats complained that the bill does not include additional measures, including restrictions on sales at gun shows and increased funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"What this bill does is placate the National Rifle Association's demand for a meaningless gun bill," said Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat.

Mr. McCollum, however, said he supports stronger gun regulation, which is stalled in a joint House-Senate conference committee, and increased funding for ATF. He blamed the stalemate on gun-control legislation on both pro-gun rights and pro-gun control forces.

"I happen to believe that we could have and should have long ago reached a compromise on it … be we can't get both sides to agree," he said. "It's been kind of interesting because some on both ends of that spectrum aren't willing to compromise on something that's so important."

The bill under consideration by the conference committee includes new rules requiring gun shops to sell trigger locks with all new handguns, banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines and clips, and banning youths from possessing certain semiautomatic weapons. The House and Senate have supported those proposals in some form.

The agreement breaks down, however, over how to regulate sales at gun shows. Democratic leaders want to give police up to three days to conduct background checks, while pro-gun rights members of both parties say that the limit should be no more than one day given that gun shows generally last only one or two days.

Republican leaders, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, have tried to craft a compromise, but they say Democratic leaders have refused to discuss the matter. Democrats say the proposed compromise is unacceptable because it actually weakens some elements of current law.

The Project Exile bill is the Republican answer to a push by the White House for stronger restrictions on gun sales in the wake of recent school shootings. They argue that the federal government has many gun laws already, but the Department of Justice has failed to prosecute tens of thousands of felons who have tried to buy weapons but were turned back by the instant background-check system.

The administration argues that it has concentrated more on helping local officials prosecute crimes, particularly those committed by gun traffickers and rogue gun dealers.

Three weeks ago, Democrats introduced their own $280 million enforcement bill, which contains some elements of Project Exile.

The Democratic bill calls for increased prosecutions of gun crimes but does not impose the mandatory minimum sentence. It calls, in part, for $70 million per year to beef up the instant background check system; $53 million to hire more agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and $150 million to hire more local and federal prosecutors.

The only explicit money for Project Exile is $15 million to create 100 new federal "teams" to help local officials create programs modeled on Exile.

The Democratic bill also increases the power of ATF to inspect gun shops and investigate gun dealers.

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