- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday said federal gun prosecutions increased by 32 percent last year under the Justice Department's 2-year-old Project Safe Neighborhoods program, and vowed a significant jump in funding to crack down on future gun violence.
Speaking to a conference of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Philadelphia, Mr. Ashcroft said 10,600 suspected offenders were charged with federal gun violations in 2002, compared to 8,054 who faced federal gun charges in 2000, the year before the program started.
The program, which diverts cases from state court to federal court where penalties are stiffer, accounted for 7,747 gun-violation convictions, which Mr. Ashcroft called the largest ever for a single year.
Of those charged, 93 percent were sentenced to prison, 71 percent of whom received terms of three years or more.
Increased arrests and penalties for gun violations have been credited by some law enforcement officials and others for a reduction in the crime rate. Firearms were involved in 12 percent of all violent crimes in 1993, compared with 9 percent last year, according to the Justice Department.
"Enforcing existing firearms laws while creating innovative, effective methods for community involvement are important factors in deterring and prosecuting violent crime," Mr. Ashcroft said in a statement.
Mr. Ashcroft faced harsh criticism during his 2001 confirmation hearings from a coalition of liberal groups that said the former Missouri governor and U.S. senator opposed federal gun-control legislation and questioned whether he would enforce gun laws based on his belief that all law-abiding citizens had a constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
The coalition, led by the Violence Policy Center, sought unsuccessfully to derail his nomination.
Mr. Ashcroft said at the time that existing gun laws needed to be better enforced and proposed what he called a "clear agenda to make America a more secure and safe place" through the stricter enforcement of gun and drug laws and a commitment to every person's civil rights.
His $24.6 billion fiscal budget for 2002 was aimed at reducing gun crime, stopping violence against women, combating drugs and guaranteeing the civil rights of all citizens. He has said there was "no question" the Justice Department needed a "renewed commitment" to the enforcement of existing laws to address gun crime.
The Project Safe Neighborhoods program was created in May 2001 to confront and control what was described as an epidemic of gun violence nationwide that saw 10,000 casualties a year.
The program involves five essential elements, including partnership, strategic planning, training, community outreach and accountability.
Specialized units were created within the 94 U.S. Attorney's Offices across the country to target the most significant gun-crime problems within each district, backed by increased resources and manpower.
In some of the 94 federal law enforcement districts, the program has taken on President Bush's faith-based approach to social problems by involving church groups in violence-prevention initiatives.
Mr. Ashcroft said the Bush administration will increase program funding to about $342 million this year, compared with $558 million over the first two years. The additional money will finance public relations efforts, enhance criminal statistical-analysis capabilities and hire more than 500 state and local prosecutors to handle gun cases in high-crime areas.

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