PHILADELPHIA - President Bush announced yesterday that he plans to expand to all 50 states an anti-gun initiative that places more gun crimes under federal jurisdiction, meaning tougher sentences for offenders but also the potential for more crowded caseloads in the federal courts.
"Those who commit crimes with guns will find a determined adversary in my administration," Bush declared in an address to several dozen uniformed police officers in Philadelphia.
For his first major presidential speech on crime, Bush promoted a policy that is heavy on tougher enforcement measures and enjoys wide support. Both the National Rifle Association, which backed Bush's presidential campaign, and Handgun Control Inc., which included Bush on its "Dangerous Dozen" list of politicians it views as favoring gun makers, said his policy would likely take dangerous criminals off the streets.
His remarks also underscored how Bush's approach to gun control differs from that of his Democratic predecessor. Whereas Bill Clinton pushed for tighter curbs on access to guns, Bush has argued that the key to reducing gun violence is not new laws but better enforcement of existing ones.
Bush dubbed his new policy "Project Safe Neighborhoods" and has earmarked $550 million for it over the next two years. Some of the money would be spent to hire 113 new assistant federal prosecutors across the country who would focus exclusively on gun crimes.
The thrust of the program is a close partnership between federal prosecutors and their state and local counterparts. States and localities would have more discretion in handling gun cases, including the option of sending the cases to federal court, where gun crimes typically bring stiffer sentences.
One of the models for the program, Bush said, is "Project Exile," which was launched in Richmond, Va., in 1997. The president credited that program with helping to reduce homicides in the state capital by 40 percent and armed robberies by 30 percent in its first year alone.
Under Project Exile, a past felon convicted of gun possession could face a mandatory five-year sentence, and prosecutors have the option of seeking a longer prison term.
But that program also had its critics. Some noted that other Virginia cities, as well as many communities nationwide, saw their crime rates drop over the same period. Others complained that minority offenders were unfairly targeted under the initiative.
In Maryland, Bush's plan could run into resistance, depending on how strictly he insists on adopting the Richmond model. Since 1994, Maryland has had a similar but more modest program called "Project Disarm." Under this program, a smaller proportion of criminals - only those who have been convicted of violent crimes or drug charges in the past - can be tried in federal court if they are found with a gun.
Federal prosecutors note that the Maryland program might have helped reduce the homicide rate in Baltimore by 14 percent from 1999 to 2000. But they say they worry that adopting the much tougher Richmond-style program would overcrowd the federal courts.
"You can overwhelm a system with too many cases," said the acting U.S. attorney for Maryland, Stephen M. Schenning. "To take every case, without any criterion? There would be a lot of cases in the federal system that had no reason to be there."
Even under Project Disarm, federal judges complained that their courtrooms were being overrun with gun cases that could have been handled in local or state courts.
"The greatest threat to our ability to manage our civil docket effectively is the expanding federal prosecution of street crime," Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz of U.S. District Court in Baltimore wrote last year. Motz added that he and his colleagues were "becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of felon-in-possession cases."
Lynne A. Battaglia, the former U.S. attorney for Maryland, resisted frequent calls by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, to replicate Project Exile in Baltimore. Battaglia, now a judge on the state Court of Appeals, long maintained that Project Disarm, which she created, was as effective as the Richmond program in taking gun offenders off the streets.
The White House stressed that every U.S. attorney in the nation would be required to participate in Project Safe Neighborhoods but that communities could tailor the initiative to their area.
Schenning said that might mean Project Disarm could be allowed to continue largely as it is. But Ehrlich - who said yesterday that Project Disarm "didn't work," noting that Baltimore's annual homicide toll remained above 300 for much of the 1990s, and that Project Exile "does" work - has been asked by the White House to recommend a new U.S. attorney to replace Schenning.
"Clearly, this is an issue any candidate for the position knew full well was important to me," Ehrlich said yesterday.
Bush said he was devoting more than $233 million to his new program in its first year. Of that, $15.3 million would be spent to hire the new federal prosecutors and $75 million would pay for 600 new state and local prosecutors.
To announce his new policy, Bush dropped in on an otherwise low-key ceremony in which 35 Philadelphia police officers were promoted to corporal. Pennsylvania, a swing state that Bush narrowly lost to Al Gore in November, is becoming a frequent stomping ground for the president. He will return to the state Friday, when he will pitch his energy policy in Lancaster County.
Bush's aides noted yesterday that the president has set aside $75 million in his budget for a prevention measure - helping states provide child-safety locks for handguns. And they said he is open to "common-sense" measures to close a loophole that allows people to make purchases at gun shows without undergoing background checks.
'Hope it's only a first step'
Even as they applauded Bush's effort, gun-control advocates noted that he did not discuss how vigorously he will support closing the gun-show loophole, which he suggested in the presidential campaign that he favored.
"It's a good first step, but we hope it's only a first step," Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control, said of the announcement yesterday. "We can't just talk about punishment and prosecution - we need to talk about prevention."
Today, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, will jointly introduce a bill to close the gun-show loophole.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat who supports their legislation and whose husband was killed in 1993 when a gunman opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road train, said she was pleased with yesterday's announcement by Bush, but added:
"If we don't have prevention, then the crime has already been committed, and somebody is usually hurt or killed."