Department of Justice Seal

Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft

Project Safe Neighborhoods Kickoff Conference
Columbia, South Carolina
January 23, 2002

      I am grateful to be here with all of you today. Thanks, Ken, for that kind introduction. And thanks to all of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to support Project Safe Neighborhoods: America's Network Against Gun Violence.

      In all of my years of public service, I have never seen a conference of this scale dedicated to the single mission of reducing gun violence in America. The range of experts here is impressive. We have local police chiefs, federal agents, state and local prosecutors, federal prosecutors and top researchers – all experts in the field of reducing gun violence. You come from every state in the Union – from Hawaii to Maine. Thank you for being here today.

      Last May, I had the honor of joining with President Bush to announce an unprecedented partnership among local, state, and federal government to fight gun violence in America. We called upon all levels of law enforcement to join hands together and unify in the fight against this dangerous enemy, which takes the lives of so many innocent Americans every year. Today, with the assistance of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the National District Attorneys Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the National Crime Prevention Council, we are following through on that promise–and beginning to implement Project Safe Neighborhoods throughout America. Thanks go to Kevin Meenan and Newman Flanigan at the National District Attorneys Association. I thank also Mary Ann Viverette at the International Association of Chiefs of Police for her stalwart support of this initiative. Our state and local partners are the key to the success of this initiative–and your dedication and commitment to this worthy effort are greatly appreciated.

      We are grateful, as well, to Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Director Buckles. It is Director Buckles' leadership that has helped to forge an extraordinary and unprecedented alliance between the Department of Justice and ATF. This alliance, along with the support of our state and local partners, will help us win this war against armed criminals.

      As we all know, the United States is a nation plagued by unacceptable levels of gun violence. In 1999, guns were involved in over a third of the one million violent crimes in this country, and more than 10,000 people were murdered with guns. Think about that: more than ten thousand people died from gun violence. That's almost twice the number that died at Pearl Harbor and on September 11th. In America today, a teenager is more likely to die from a gunshot than from all natural causes of death combined.

      Often this violence hits close to home. Too close. Many of us have had people we know and love become victims of gun violence. Last summer, just a few hundred yards from where we are today, the Justice Department lost a member of its family. Michael Messer and Gillium Ferguson, both federal prosecutors from Illinois, were shot during a robbery attempt by four armed teens. It happened as they were walking home from dinner on their way back here, to the National Advocacy Center, where they were staying. Tragically, Michael Messer's wounds were fatal. As I look out across the faces here today, I know that many of you have similar stories about co-workers, friends, and perhaps even family members who have been victims of horrible acts of violence.

      We all have an obligation to see that this carnage ends. We have, as well, an obligation to enforce America's existing gun laws–so that criminals get the toughest sentences possible for their crimes. That is, in short, what Project Safe Neighborhoods is all about.

      America has good, strong gun laws on the books. The key to a successful strategy to reduce gun violence is aggressive enforcement of existing gun laws. When gun laws are enforced in this manner, two things happen. First, gun criminals serve real time so that they are taken off our streets and out of our neighborhoods. Second, the word goes out into the community that offenders can and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This strategy deters would-be criminals from carrying guns–and helps to break the deadly link between a criminal carrying a gun and the commission of a crime.

      This strategy has had proven results. A good example of the success of this strategy occurred in Virginia under the Exile Program. Prior to Exile, the City of Richmond had an exploding violent crime problem and one of the highest murder rates in the country. Since 1997, when Exile was begun in Richmond, homicides have dropped 48 percent, the lowest level since 1983. Aggravated assaults have decreased by 39 percent. The overall number of violent crimes has dropped by 35 percent, and crimes involving guns have declined by 65 percent. Much of this decline is attributed to the changed attitudes of the criminal community. They know that if they are caught with a gun they will not have a second chance–they will go straight to jail.

      Project Safe Neighborhoods is a strategy to reduce gun violence in America. It is not another bureaucracy run out of Washington, D.C. It is a new, nation-wide commitment to fight gun violence, and it incorporates and builds on successful efforts already in place around America, like Exile. In crafting Project Safe Neighborhoods, our many partners looked all across America at existing successful local strategies that target gun crime. We selected the best practices from each of these programs for implementation into this new national strategy. The strategies and methods advocated under Project Safe Neighborhoods came first from communities across America–where they have been proven to work.

      In Seattle, for example, they have pioneered the practice of triage of gun cases to determine whether they are better suited for local or federal prosecution. There, they have the sheriff, local chief of police and district attorney sit down with federal officials – representatives of the FBI, the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office – to review gun cases and determine which agencies will prosecute each case. Seattle is a good model for the local gun crime task forces we are advocating as part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods Strategy.

      In Alabama, they used television commercials to spread the word among the criminal class that if you use a gun in the commission of a crime you would be charged federally and face potentially much more serious prison time. This tactic has been used effectively in other districts as well. We liked the idea so much we made it part of Project Safe Neighborhoods.

      It is not the goal of the Department of Justice to come in to your community and federalize all of your gun prosecutions – quite the opposite. The objective of Project Safe Neighborhoods is to encourage all levels of law enforcement to work together in a strategic and coordinated fashion–so that gun criminals can be tried in either federal or state courts–whichever venue provides the toughest sentences for that particular crime. We want the states to do what the states do best and the feds to do what the feds do best.

      Where federal prosecution is involved, I have directed each United States Attorney to prosecute, to the fullest extent possible, the following groups of offenders: violent offenders and organizations who use guns, illegal gun traffickers, and individuals who are prohibited from lawfully possessing a gun–such as felons in possession of a gun and those who attempt to purchase a gun in violation of the Brady Act. Under the nation's tough federal sentencing guidelines, criminals will serve hard federal time if convicted of one these crimes.

      Let me emphasize that prosecution of criminals is not the only objective. Deterrence of gun crime is a vital component of Project Safe Neighborhoods, and we are sending a clear message that criminals will do hard time for gun crime.

      The Department of Justice has partnered with the National Crime Prevention Council to help get this message out to the criminal community. This morning, Chris Wray showed you some commercials used around the country that have sent this strong deterrent message. We are in the process of developing additional commercials and other mechanisms to help send the message loud and clear: "You will get hard time for gun crime."

      Under Project Safe Neighborhoods, I have directed each United States Attorney to reach out to state and local law enforcement and ensure that a comprehensive strategy to reduce gun violence is in place in every federal judicial district in America. Where a local gun violence initiative already exists and is working well, it will remain and simply be bolstered by the resources provided under this initiative. However, where there is no local gun violence initiative, the United States Attorney can work with that district to implement a gun violence reduction strategy that focuses on the implementation of five key elements. These five elements include:

–      a partnership among local, state, and federal authorities;

–      a strategic plan to counter gun violence;

–      training officers, agents, and prosecutors in firearms enforcement;

–      outreach to the community to increase awareness and deterrence, and

–      accountability for results.

      The goal is to weave an impenetrable nation-wide network of law enforcement agencies, all working together in pursuit of one common goal--to put criminals who use guns behind bars.

      This Administration is committed to providing the resources needed to make Project Safe Neighborhoods a success. More than 533 million dollars is currently being deployed throughout the country to assist law enforcement in its efforts. The Department of Justice, through the Office of Justice Programs, will make available substantial resources this year –more than $155 million in grants--to assist state and local governments to implement this strategy.

      As part of this initiative – and in the spirit of cooperation and partnership it embodies – I have the privilege to announce today that the Department of Justice is providing nearly $70 million to state and local governments to hire 580 new local prosecutors dedicated to fighting gun violence. In addition, it is my privilege to announce that the Department of Justice will hire an additional 207 new federal prosecutors in support of these efforts. This is a commitment of resources that matches both the scope of the problem, and the magnitude of our resolve. These new federal, state, and local prosecutors will work together in a unified effort to aggressively prosecute criminals who use guns in violation of the law.

      But we cannot succeed without your help. I am here today to ask for your assistance in making this strategy a success. Unity of purpose and harmony of resolve are at the heart of Project Safe Neighborhoods. Today I am asking state and local law enforcement to join hands with the federal government to present a united front against gun criminals. Only together, through this unprecedented partnership, can we begin to turn the tide on gun violence–and get gun-wielding criminals off our streets and out of our neighborhoods.

      Thank you.