Success of shift in guns policy is debatable

Move away from prosecuting illegal dealers seen as harmful

October 27, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Early in the summer of 2003, two Baltimore City police officers patrolling Tyson Street near Lexington Market saw 24-year-old Michael Awosika pull a sawed-off shotgun from some nearby bushes and stuff it down his pants.

The police chased him through downtown Baltimore, collared him, then went back to find the shotgun, which he had ditched as he fled.

The officers arrested him, booked him, took his statement and put him in jail. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Justice Department took the credit, after federal prosecutors arranged a plea agreement on federal gun charges that sent him to jail for 63 months.

The case is one of thousands federal authorities have used in recent years to bolster statistics in what critics allege is an effort to blur results and show a successful campaign to reduce gun violence.

But after three years, $1 billion and a landmark shift in the way this country deals with gun crime, another bleaker set of numbers tells a different story.

Awosika's case, like at least half of the cases Justice Department officials cite, was for all practical purposes a local case. But when the bureau, widely known as ATF, says it opened 29,000 firearm cases last year, it counted the Awosika case because it traced the gun and proved it had crossed state lines. And when Attorney General John Ashcroft stood in a hotel ballroom in New York three weeks ago and told an audience of computer experts, "We have increased the federal prosecution of gun crimes by 68 percent," he counted the Awosika case among them.

A "record level of safety," Ashcroft told the crowd, "has been achieved for all Americans."

That claim, however, does not reflect the full picture.

A shift in focus

Overall, crime in the United States has been on a steady decline since 1991, and is now at a 30-year low. But a closer look shows a troubling new trend: Almost 27 percent of all homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults were committed with a firearm in 2003, the highest percentage since 1997, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.

By focusing on largely local gun possession cases, federal prosecutors and ATF agents are increasingly less likely to investigate and prosecute federal gun offenses that target corrupt dealers and traffickers, records show. Law enforcement officials say the results are everywhere: Criminals are more easily obtaining guns, and America's cities and towns are awash in firearms.

"The gun problem in this city seems to me to be completely unchecked," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark.

Ashcroft declined to comment about the growth in violent, gun-related crimes or the flow of guns to the streets, according to Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo, who called the new gun policy an "overwhelming success."

Claiming success in the battle against gun violence could not be more important right now to the Bush administration, the Justice Department and the ATF, which Justice oversees. All have thrown their weight behind a controversial anti-gun crime initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods, which took effect in 2001.

Project Safe Neighborhoods upended a decade-long focus on curtailing illegal gun dealing before the weapons reach the hands of criminals. It is the result of lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other elements of the gun lobby, which have had easy access to top policy makers during the Bush years. That includes meeting in private with ATF's new director, Carl J. Truscott, he acknowledged in an interview.

Instead, the initiative focuses almost exclusively on prosecuting criminals after they have acquired a firearm or used it to kill, kidnap, rob or threaten. Rather than targeting dealers or traffickers who distribute firearms to illegal markets, Project Safe Neighborhoods concentrates on two laws: one prohibits felons from possessing guns and the other adds a handful of years to defendants' sentences if they used a gun while committing another crime.

Almost 87 percent of all cases the Justice Department prosecuted involving gun crime last year were for violations of those two laws, according to ATF records. In the meantime, the 20 other major federal gun laws, which unlike the possession statutes are seldom covered by state law, have rarely been investigated and even less frequently prosecuted since Project Safe Neighborhoods began.

Few people, including the gun control lobby, find fault with vigorously prosecuting criminals who possess weapons or increasing the severity of punishments for those who use guns to commit crimes.

But because other laws are not enforced, suspect gun dealers and traffickers have had almost free rein over the past three years to acquire, distribute and sell guns illegally without fear of being investigated or prosecuted, according to department statistics, industry experts and current and former law enforcement officials.

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