Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Project Safe Neighborhoods
May 2, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General often deviates from prepared remarks.)
Good afternoon. Thank you for that introduction, U.S. Attorney [Johnny] Sutton.
Thank you, Attorney General Abbott, for your show of support today. Your leadership is critical to building federal, state, and local cooperation.
It is a pleasure to be here in the Lone Star State again. It is an honor to recognize the leadership of four extraordinary U.S. attorneys: Matthew Orwig, Jane Boyle, Michael Shelby, and Johnny Sutton.
Because of their teamwork and their innovative thinking, this Administration is spreading a critical message to all Americans: gun crime means hard time. The forces of law and justice will track down and prosecute every offender.
Thanks to Project Safe Neighborhoods, criminals will face the consequences of their actions and justice will be done.
It is an inspiration to see these U.S. attorneys combine the federal resources at their disposal to launch a public-service-ad campaign to alert citizens to the penalties and protections of Project Safe Neighborhood and what a record we have to show!
Today, we have critical players from every level of law enforcement-heroes who have made Project Safe Neighborhood one of the most successful programs to reduce gun crime in our nation's history.
- Col. Tom Davis of the Texas Department of Public Safety;
- Stan Knee, Austin's Chief of Police;
- Terrell Bolton, Dallas's Chief of Police;
- Margo Frasier, Sheriff of Travis County; and
- Ronnie Earle, District Attorney for Travis County
I also thank the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Thank you, Special Supervisory Agents:
- Ron Carter from Dallas;
- Jim Cooke from Houston; and
- Mark Curtin from Austin
Thank you all for your service. You are the men and women on the front line, protecting and serving. You are the men and women who have set the impressive records of Project Safe Neighborhood.
From the beginning of his administration, President Bush has made it clear that gun crime was a grave problem facing America.
Every year, Americans lose thousands of brothers, sisters, parents, children, and friends to gun crime. In 1999, criminals using guns illegally murdered more than 10,000 people. For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings that left victims maimed, handicapped, or living in fear and dread.
These abstract numbers sometimes cloak the pain and terror gun crimes inflict on individual lives. But these numbers also rouse citizens to demand swift and certain justice for gun crime. By targeting illegal use of guns by criminals, we can make a real difference in people's lives. Two-thirds of all gun crimes are committed by repeat offenders-criminals who have skirted the courts and flaunted the law to prey on citizens and communities again and 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. Dozens of officers-those who dedicate their lives to protecting us from gun crime-are killed in the line of duty.
In too many neighborhoods in America, law-abiding citizens are afraid to walk the street because of criminals who use guns illegally. In too many neighborhoods in America, the death toll from those who abuse firearms shatter families, terrorize communities, and abridge freedom.
It is our obligation to end this carnage. It is our duty to defend every American's right to life and liberty.
The concept of Project Safe Neighborhoods is disarmingly simple: federal, state, and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors work together to investigate, arrest, and prosecute criminals with guns. They seek the maximum penalties available under state or federal law.
Our message to armed criminals is unambiguous: you will have nowhere to hide. The law will find you. The honest and decent will fight back. Justice will conquer.
President Bush has stated his commitment to this prime responsibility of government to protect citizens and the rule of law. He has stated his commitment simply, clearly, and with brutal honesty: "If you use a gun illegally, you will do hard time."
State, local, and federal crime-fighters are delivering on this commitment.
To win the war against gun crime, this Administration will commit more than $900 million in the first three years of the program. Initial funding from Project Safe Neighborhoods was used to hire 207 new federal prosecutors and nearly 600 new local prosecutors--with every one of these prosecutors focused on getting gun-wielding criminals off our streets and out of our neighborhoods.
In addition, nearly 400 new ATF&E agents have been hired to support Project Safe Neighborhoods programs in communities across this nation. With these new resources, I directed the 93 United States Attorneys to work with state and local law enforcement, with prosecutors, and with 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 38 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. Seventy-one percent of sentences were more than three years.
These numbers are not paper victories. They are not empty statistics. These numbers mean fewer victims safer communities and armed criminals off the streets and in jail.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is making a real impact here in the Western District of Texas. Since the program began, federal firearms prosecutions have increased nearly 40 percent; prosecutions that place the most dangerous and violent offenders behind bars.
Just this past March in San Antonio, Robert Earl Grant, a three-time convicted felon for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, was sentenced to nearly 13 years in federal prison without parole. Under federal law, Grant was considered an "armed career criminal" when he took possession, yet again, of an illegal gun.
Grant and other violent offenders like him are getting our message loud and clear. Across this nation, prosecutors and law enforcement have banded together to take the most predatory criminals off the street. This means less crime.
- 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 stark, irrefutable, and encouraging to every law-abiding citizen: Project Safe Neighborhoods is making our communities-and America-safer.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is working because it is administered by the true protectors of our communities: state crime-fighters, district attorneys, local police and sheriffs.
Project Safe Neighborhoods helps fight crime by reducing Washington bureaucracy. Washington's role is to help share methods, information, and know-how with those in the trenches on the ground in the daily firefights against crime.
The unprecedented teamwork that is a result has led to unprecedented success. But our work is not yet finished.
The Justice Department is awarding 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 are also aiding state and local law enforcement with the best in federal crime fighting. 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, I have directed all United States 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:
- In consultation with ATF and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, I have also directed U.S. Attorneys to review and report the progress on my directive of June 2001 to pursue more "lie and try" cases. This means prosecuting criminals who lie about their past convictions and are caught during background checks. Even though these individuals do not succeed in obtaining a gun, they have still broken the law. We want them to know if they even try to get a gun, we will prosecute them.
- I have also directed 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.
- I have also called on the Criminal Division, ATF, and other appropriate Justice 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: to eradicate gun crime in America and build safer neighborhoods.
Today, the men and women of law enforcement are called to preserve liberty. We are called to uphold equality and justice under the law. We are called to safeguard the lives of every American. That call has been heard at every level of government, in every court, and in every precinct.
Thank you for your leadership, your sacrifice, and your service. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.