Remarks of Attorney General Ashcroft
Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference
January 30, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Good afternoon. Thank you, Larry, for that kind introduction and for all you do for the cause of justice in America.
I want to begin this afternoon by recognizing some individuals who helped make this year's Project Safe Neighborhoods conference a success. First, I thank Pat Meehan, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, for hosting us in his city. I thank Pat especially for being here today - he has just lost his father, and he has made a tremendous sacrifice to be here with us today. I thank him for this sacrifice, and for his steady leadership and dedication even during this time of tremendous personal loss.
I thank also Brad Buckles, the acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As many of you know, ATF is the newest member of the Justice family, but has been a partner in Project Safe Neighborhoods since its inception. I am grateful to Brad for his commitment and partnership.
Thanks also go to Dan Alsobrooks and Newman Flanagan at the National District Attorneys Association, to Joseph Samuels and Dan Rosenblatt at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and to Jack Calhoun at the National Crime Prevention Council, for their stalwart support of Project Safe Neighborhoods.
I could keep going. Based on the success stories I have heard since we met one year ago in Columbia, South Carolina, I could stand up here and spend my allotted time thanking each of you individually. You see, I came here today to report on how Project Safe Neighborhoods is doing in fighting gun crime in America. And the results - thanks to you - are remarkable.
It is particularly appropriate that we are here in Philadelphia to review the progress of Project Safe Neighborhoods. It was here in Philadelphia that President Bush launched Project Safe Neighborhoods in May of 2001. From the beginning of his administration, the President made it clear gun crime was an intolerable problem in America.
Every year, Americans lose thousands of brothers, sisters, parents, children, and friends to gun crime. In 1999, more than 10,000 people were murdered by criminals with guns. For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. These figures are tragic enough, but they become even worse when we are reminded that two-thirds of all gun crimes are committed by repeat offenders - criminals who have slipped through the justice system to harm our citizens and our communities again.
Many of you, the men and women of law enforcement, have experienced first-hand the devastation caused by gun crime. Among those lost every year are many of your colleagues, the police men and women on the front lines of the battle against gun crime. Dozens of officers - those who dedicate their lives to protecting us from gun crime - are killed in the line of duty each year.
In too many neighborhoods in America, law-abiding citizens are afraid to walk down the street because of criminals with guns. In too many neighborhoods in America, innocents are slaughtered. Families are shattered. Communities cower in fear. And freedom is diminished.
It is our obligation to end this carnage and to defend every American's right to his or her personal safety. The concept of Project Safe Neighborhoods is disarmingly simple: federal, state and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors working together to investigate, arrest, and prosecute criminals with guns to get the maximum penalties available under state or federal law.
Our message to armed criminals is unambiguous: no more slipping through the cracks. President Bush put it best here in Philadelphia in May of 2001: "If you use a gun illegally, you will do hard time."
Determined to make this fight a success, the administration aims to commit more than 900 million for this effort over the first three years. Initial funding from Project Safe Neighborhoods was used to hire 207 new federal prosecutors - all focusing on gun crime. In addition, nearly 400 new ATF agents have been hired to support Project Safe Neighborhoods programs across the country. With these new resources, I directed the 93 United States Attorneys to work with you, the state and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors, researchers and community leaders to build and improve local strategies tailored to meet the different needs of your own communities - but with the common objective of putting armed criminals behind bars.
After almost two years, how are we doing? The numbers speak for themselves:
- Since this administration implemented Project Safe Neighborhoods in 2001, federal gun crime prosecutions have increased by 32 percent.
- In 2002 alone, federal gun crime prosecutions increased by 20.2 percent - the highest increase since the Justice Department began recording this information in 1990.
- Also in 2002 alone, 10,634 defendants were charged in the federal system for violating gun statutes - the largest number ever prosecuted. So far, 7,747 criminals with guns have been convicted - the largest number ever convicted in a single year. If anyone doubts how serious we are about enforcing federal gun laws, ask those almost 8,000 armed criminals we took off the street last year.
- The conviction rate for federal gun crime prosecutions was nearly 90 percent in 2002.
- More than half of these gun criminals were sentenced to more than five years in a federal prison. 71 percent of sentences were more than three years.
- These are not mere paper statistics. These numbers translate into armed criminals who are off the streets, fewer victims, and safer communities.
- Here in Philadelphia, federal gun crime prosecutions increased 22 percent while robberies at gunpoint dropped 11 percent. The conviction rate for federal prosecutions is 95 percent, and the average sentence is ten years. Aggravated assaults with guns decreased by 9 percent in the last year, and the homicide rate is the lowest it has been since 1985.
- In a stellar example of the coordination of federal, state and local law enforcement, the U.S. Attorney's office here in Philadelphia partnered with the Reading Areas Violent Crimes Task Force and local police to dismantle the Cuello Crack Cocaine Distribution Organization. These armed drug dealers sold drugs from crack houses near an elementary school. This past September, Pat Meehan announced the indictment of 14 alleged members of the Cuello gang. Each defendant faces a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life in prison.
- In Kansas City, federal prosecutions increased by 26 percent last year, while the murder rate dropped 23 percent to its lowest level in three decades. This reduction translates to 27 real people whose lives have been saved.
- And in Las Vegas, the number of firearms cases handled by the District Attorney increased by 100 percent. And federal prosecutions in Nevada rose by 54 percent.
The bottom line is simple: Project Safe Neighborhoods is making our neighborhoods - and America - safer. Project Safe Neighborhoods is working, because it is administered by you, the protectors of our local communities - not by Washington bureaucrats. You have examined successful efforts already in place throughout the country and brought them into your neighborhoods. You have taken the bedrock principles of Project Safe Neighborhoods to heart and put them into practice town by town, county by county, all across America.
Our unprecedented teamwork has led to unprecedented success. But our work is not yet finished. As part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative -- and in the spirit of partnership and cooperation it embodies -- I have the privilege to announce today new financial resources and other tools to continue our progress in fighting gun crime.
First, with respect to the financial resources:
- The Justice Department will award 41 grants -- totaling nearly ten million dollars -- to districts in 23 states in order to hire new law enforcement officers, new researchers, and new community outreach staff.
- We will also award $13 million to Project Sentry, in order to better coordinate federal, state, and local efforts to prosecute juveniles who violate state and federal firearms laws.
- $16 million will go to implement media outreach and community engagement programs in each of the 94 U.S. Attorney districts.
- And $15 million will be used to support research and crime analysis in each of the 94 districts.
Second, it is my pleasure to welcome the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the Department of Justice. Under the leadership of Acting Director Brad Buckles, the ATF and the Justice Department have forged an extraordinary and unprecedented alliance. The ATF brings to the Department -- and to Project Safe Neighborhoods -- 4,800 dedicated employees, including over 2,300 special agents, with law enforcement expertise in the areas of firearms, explosives, and arson.
The Justice Department has now in its law enforcement arsenal ATF's specialized resources, such as its National Tracing Center, National Integrated Ballistics Imaging systems, and forensic laboratories, to name a few. These resources expand significantly the services the Justice Department can offer to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
To take immediate advantage of the opportunity for increased cooperation with ATF, today I am directing all United State Attorneys and corresponding ATF Special Agents in Charge to coordinate on referral guidelines and criteria for the investigation and prosecution of gun cases in Federal court, and to ensure cases not brought in Federal court are referred to state prosecutors where appropriate. I am also directing the integration of the Department's and ATF's case referral information systems so we have a coordinated system for tracking gun case referrals and prosecutions.
Finally, I am taking the following steps to strengthen the Department's efforts to combat the illegal supply of guns to criminals, a critical component of our efforts to prevent gun crime:
- Today I am directing all U.S. Attorneys, in consultation with ATF and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, to review and report the progress on my directive in June 2001 to pursue more "lie and try" cases - where criminals lie about their past criminal convictions and are denied a gun sale because a Brady background check catches their lie. Even though these individuals do not succeed in obtaining a gun, they have committed a separate federal crime. We want them to know if they even try, we will prosecute.
- I am also directing the Criminal Division, in consultation with ATF and other appropriate Justice Department components, to review the adequacy of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in punishing "straw purchaser" gun traffickers - individuals with clean records who buy a few guns to sell to armed criminals.
- Just this week in the Eastern District of Virginia, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty announced the breakup of a major gun trafficking ring. A federal indictment charges 25 people with trafficking in firearms. These individuals conspired to "straw purchase" over 150 firearms from licensed dealers in Virginia and sell them for profit on the streets of New York and Baltimore. The organizers of the trafficking ring are all convicted felons, who would not have been able to buy the weapons legally. This case is a triumph for law enforcement - and for Project Safe Neighborhoods. We will continue to send the message to gun traffickers loud and clear: we will prosecute.
- Last, I'm directing the Criminal Division, ATF, and other appropriate Department components to establish procedures for coordinating the investigation and prosecution of illegal gun trafficking cases that cross state and district boundaries.
Each of these ingredients - financial resources for state and local efforts, the integration of ATF into the Justice Department, and increased focus on stemming the supply of illegal guns - will help us to achieve our overarching mission: making America safer by eradicating gun crime.
Thirty five years ago, Robert F. Kennedy captured the essence of the challenge that lies before us: "The real threat of crime," said Kennedy, "is what it does to our selves and our communities. No nation hiding behind locked doors is free...no nation whose citizens fear to walk their own streets is healthy."
Kennedy went on to say, "The fight against crime is...a fight to preserve that quality of community which is at the root of our greatness; a fight to preserve confidence in ourselves and our fellow citizens; a battle for the quality of our lives."
Today, all of the men and women of law enforcement are called to preserve the quality of our nation's greatness. We are called to defend American communities from the degradation of gun crime. We are called to uphold the freedoms of all Americans. You are the answerers of this call; you are the defenders of this freedom.
Thank you for your leadership, your sacrifice, and your service. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.