Attorney General John D. Ashcroft is pushing stepped-up prosecutions of gun crimes as one of his first priorities, bringing to the national stage a debate thrashed out in Baltimore over the federal government's role in curbing city violence.
Ashcroft has held up as a model "Project Exile" - the get-tough federal gun program that has won bipartisan praise for reducing violence in Richmond, Va., but has caused heartburn for U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore under pressure to duplicate it here.
A Justice Department task force will review whether U.S. attorneys across the country should mirror Richmond, where since 1997 authorities have pursued nearly all city gun crimes in federal court and have marketed the message that gun-toting criminals can face long federal prison sentences. A recommendation is expected in late spring.
"We're going to take a hard line on people who used guns in the commission of a crime," Ashcroft, a staunch conservative who has long opposed new gun controls, said after his confirmation last month. "We should nail them."
The discussion about whether Project Exile offers the best way to do that is a familiar one in Baltimore. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, has prodded Maryland's U.S. attorney for more than a year to copy Richmond's example of pursuing federal gun crimes more aggressively and more publicly.
Prosecutors have challenged Ehrlich's criticism. They say their effort to combat gun crime - started in 1994 and dubbed "Project Disarm" - has made Baltimore safer and the number of cases is leading the country.
But Ehrlich could get his way with the backing of Ashcroft and President Bush, who also has applauded Project Exile. In addition, Ehrlich has played a role in recommending candidates to be Maryland's next U.S. attorney - an appointment that is expected from the White House soon. "I think everybody is getting on the same page," Ehrlich said this week.
The distinctions between the anti-gun efforts here and in Richmond are fine ones.
In Baltimore, former U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia - who left the job this year for a seat on the Maryland Court of Appeals - designed Disarm to target the city's worst criminals caught with weapons. In Richmond, prosecutors have pursued nearly every gun offender eligible for federal prosecution. Project Exile also has enjoyed a promotional campaign funded by civic leaders, community groups and the NRA, which gave $200,000 to help pay for billboard and television advertising.
Ehrlich has focused on the results. Richmond, a city of about 200,000, recorded 139 homicides in 1997. In 1998, a year after Exile was launched, that number fell to 94. In Baltimore, the murder count stayed above 300 every year throughout the late 1990s, even as federal prosecutors were winning long prison sentences for the city's worst offenders.
But federal prosecutors point to figures for last year, when the number of Disarm cases in federal court grew from 1999 by nearly 70 percent, to 163 indictments, and the number of homicides in Baltimore dropped by 14 percent, to 262.
Stephen M. Schenning, Maryland's acting U.S. attorney, said the Baltimore office pursued more gun cases last year than all but one of the country's 94 federal court jurisdictions. He said other cities should look at Project Disarm as a possible model, just as they have Project Exile. "Whatever sort of [public relations] name you attach to it, the fact of the matter is Maryland - if you compare us to the rest of the system - we're on the cutting edge of doing gun cases," Schenning said.
Across the country, dozens of cities are trying to duplicate Exile. Under President Bill Clinton, the Justice Department was enthusiastic about Richmond's program, although officials cautioned that there can't be a "cookie-cutter" approach at the federal level to reducing crime.
That hasn't changed, said Reagan B. Dunn, a department spokesman under Ashcroft. "It's not going to be a one-size-fits-all thing at all," he said.
In promoting Project Exile, Ashcroft is following the argument endorsed by conservatives in Congress and the National Rifle Association - that the answer to gun violence is not to adopt laws but to strictly enforce existing ones.
Gun control advocates say Project Exile, while praiseworthy, should not be a substitute for a comprehensive, national gun policy. "I would say it's a start," said Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc. "We do support Project Exile. Unfortunately, it's not enough."
Said Ehrlich: "Nobody's saying it's the panacea or the entire program. But it's a very important piece of the puzzle."