WASHINGTON -- Maintaining that "the first duty of any government is to try to keep its citizens safe," President Clinton yesterday threw his weight behind a sweeping anti-crime bill that seeks to do everything from limit the availability to handguns to expand the use of the death penalty by the federal government.
"Too many Americans are not safe today," the president said in the Rose Garden, flanked by police officials. "We no longer have the freedom from fear for all our citizens that is essential to security and to prosperity."
Last year's crime bill bogged down in ideologically based disputes between the Republican White House and the Democratic Congress.
The president, suggesting that violent crime has become so rampant that the only way to address it is to use the best approaches of both liberals and conservatives, embraced a plan calculated to appeal to both sides.
"It's time we put aside the divisions of party and philosophy and put our best efforts to work on a crime plan that will help all the American people," he said. "The plan is tough. It is fair. It will put police on the street and criminals in jail. . . . It lets law-abiding citizens know that we are working to give them the safety that they deserve."
Some of its main components include:
* Helping put 50,000 additional law enforcement officers on the street during the next five years with $3.4 billion in federal grants.
* Establishing national "boot camps" at converted military bases for young first-time offenders who are presumably not yet hardened criminals.
* Limiting the ability of defense lawyers to delay the execution of convicted first-degree murderers by filing repeated motions -- writs of habeas corpus -- in federal courts.
* Calling for a five-day waiting period on handguns sold anywhere in the United States so that background checks can be done on the prospective purchasers.
* Expanding the category of federal crimes that call for the death penalty to more than 50 offenses, including the murder of federal law enforcement officers.
* Offering college scholarships and police training to up to 5,000 students willing to make a four-year commitment to police work.
Mr. Clinton's plan reads like a kind of "greatest hits" of crime-fighting literature.
The plan to limit access to the federal courts to one habeas appeal -- it would have to be filed within six months except in cases of new evidence suggesting innocence -- is borrowed from conservative critics of the criminal justice system, such as former Attorney General Edwin A. Meese III and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
But curtailing access to the federal courts is a measure that civil liberties groups have opposed fiercely.
Boot camps and putting more policemen on the street were honed for the president in time for last year's campaign in the think tanks of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democratic organization once headed by Mr. Clinton.
The impetus for gun control comes from liberal Democrats and a tireless campaign by Sarah Brady, wife of Reagan administration press secretary Jim Brady, who was wounded by handgun sold to a would-be presidential assassin with a history of mental illness.
The Brady bill has come close to passage but has never yet weathered the spirited opposition of the National Rifle Association or a threatened veto of Republican presidents.
James Baker, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist, criticized Mr. Clinton's anti-crime package as "short on criminal justice and long on firearms restrictions."
Praise from Mrs. Brady
Mrs. Brady, chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc., praised Mr. Clinton yesterday but said that the Brady bill should be moved as separate legislation to speed it through "before more blood is spilled and more lives are shattered by random handgun fire."
Mr. Clinton indicated that separate legislation would be his preference, too, but that he didn't want to get involved in a squabble between the House and Senate judiciary committees, which differ on the strategy.
Most of the money to pay for the president's ambitious anti-crime agenda has already been identified, but not yet appropriated.
In July, however, a supplemental appropriation of $150 million was passed by Congress to begin the process of beefing up local police forces.
Besides the $3.4 billion that would go directly to train new officers, the crime package includes another $1.8 billion for National Service volunteers.
The National Service plan, which the president hopes to sign into law next month, sets aside slots for up to 25,000 young people to serve as unsworn public safety workers as a way of repaying their college loans.
Maryland's share unknown
It was unknown how many of the officers or volunteers would serve in Maryland, officials said, because the formulas for allocating that money state-by-state had not yet been worked out.