Clinton defies GOP call to end gun `buybacks'

HUD program's funding unauthorized, says letter from House panel leader


CLEVELAND - Defying congressional Republicans, the Clinton administration says that it will continue paying local governments to buy back guns from private owners despite orders from House budget appropriators to end the program.

Known as Buyback America, the $15 million program is intended to reduce gun violence in cities, particularly around public housing projects, by helping the police and housing authorities purchase firearms for about $50 each, with no questions asked.

Since President Clinton unveiled the program in September, 70 cities, including Baltimore, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, and Newark, N.J., have spent $3.5 million to buy more than 17,300 guns, most of which have been destroyed.

But from its inception, the program has been sharply criticized by the National Rifle Association and by opponents of gun control in Congress as a waste of money that leaves guns in the hands of criminals.

Last month, Rep. James T. Walsh, a New York Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo to stop financing the program.

In a letter to Cuomo, Walsh said that existing law did not authorize such spending, a position supported by the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan congressional research agency. Programs in at least 30 cities have been put on hold because of the dispute.

But in a statement Clinton planned to release today, he asserts that the housing department has clear legal authority to finance the program, which he contends will help prevent "an untold number of gun accidents, suicides and crimes."

"Despite HUD's clear authority to carry out this important program, the gun lobby and other opponents of common-sense gun safety measures continue to challenge this initiative," Clinton says in the statement. "Congress should put the public safety interests of American families above those of the gun lobby and support these efforts instead of working to undermine them."

The fight over Buyback America comes as gun control is playing an increasingly prominent role in the fall elections. The NRA and the gun industry, as well as gun control groups, are promising to spend record amounts helping to elect their respective allies.

The Democrats say they expect to use the issue to underscore sharp ideological differences between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, supports an array of tougher gun laws, while Bush, the likely Republican candidate, opposes most new gun restrictions and has been a strong ally of the NRA.

Walsh denied that he had been pressured by the NRA or its allies in Congress. House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, a leading supporter of the NRA, is a member of Walsh's subcommittee. And its ranking Democrat, Rep. Allan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, who co-signed the letter to Cuomo, is considered a loyal ally of the NRA by gun-control advocates.

Asked what would happen if the buyback program continued, Walsh said that housing officials could be fined or even jailed. But he said he was not sure he was prepared to seek such penalties.

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