Thank you, District Attorney Vance, for those kind words; for your tireless work here in New York County; and, of course, for your outstanding leadership as President of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. I’m proud to count you, and many of the public servants in this room, as friends and colleagues. And I’m grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today – and for all that this Association’s members, professional staff, and leadership team have done to bring such a distinguished group together for this year’s Winter Conference.
As always, it’s wonderful to be home in New York City. Born in the Bronx, raised in Queens, schooled in Manhattan – this is a city I love. And it’s also a privilege to stand with so many great colleagues and partners – including President-Elect [Kathleen] Rice and the legendary Robert Morgenthau, a role model for all of us – as we pay tribute to some of the finest prosecutors in the country, and celebrate the achievements that have defined your work over the past year.
From this Association’s efforts in disseminating best practices and developing new police procedures for reducing wrongful convictions, to your work to establish a White Collar Crime Task Force, to harness New York’s DNA database as a crime prevention tool, and to forge strong bonds with this State’s U.S. Attorneys – Preet Bharara, Loretta Lynch, Richard Hartunian, and William Hochul – all of you are stepping up, and reaching out, to enhance longstanding partnerships and address a wide range of challenges. By seeking consensus, providing recommendations to leaders in Albany, and supporting state-level legislation to reduce gun violence, you’re proving that bipartisan solutions to difficult problems are possible. You’re standing on the front lines of the struggle against crime and violence, and you've shown that the results our citizens deserve are not out of our reach. And you’re fulfilling your duties as keepers of a sacred public trust: not merely by winning convictions or scoring political points – but by serving the American people and, above all, seeing that justice is done.
Today, more than ever, we must summon the courage to confront even the most intractable public safety challenges. And we must reject the notion that partisan gridlock and political convenience are acceptable reasons for inaction – particularly when lives are at stake, and the most vulnerable members of our society – our children – are depending on us.
Of course, it won’t always be easy to foster broad agreement on how to move forward to confront shared obstacles – and our democracy has always thrived on vigorous discussion and debate. But – in the weeks since last month’s horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut – the need to address one problem – unacceptable levels of gun violence – has come into sharp focus. And that’s why, at every level of the Obama Administration, my colleagues and I are more determined than ever to help bridge longstanding divides, to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, and to take the national fight against gun violence to a new level.
We recognize, as you do, that there is no single solution – or one-size-fits-all approach – that can put a decisive end to the senseless violence that touches each of the jurisdictions represented here and sometimes fills our national headlines, but far too often passes unnoticed in our streets. But we also understand that – when it comes to preventing mass shootings, too-common acts of gun violence, and ensuring that our Second Amendment rights are upheld – each of us has the power to make a positive difference. And all of us have an obligation to try.
In the weeks after Newtown, this obligation is what drove me to work closely with Vice President Biden and my fellow Cabinet members to formulate concrete, common-sense recommendations for reducing gun violence and preventing future tragedies. With the assistance of more than 200 groups of experts, advocacy organizations, policymakers, and private citizens, we developed a series of proposals – including 23 executive actions and a range of legislative proposals– which President Obama announced just last week.
Among these are a number of measures that the Administration has called upon Congress to consider without delay – including steps to better protect law enforcement by getting rid of armor-piercing bullets; new federal laws imposing tough penalties on gun traffickers; and a ban on high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, updated and stronger than the legislation enacted in 1994. We’ve also urged Congress to take immediate action to require “universal” background checks, so that a full background check is performed every time someone attempts to buy a gun. In the meantime, we’re encouraging all private sellers to run their transactions through the NICS background system with the help of a licensed gun dealer – something that many already do on a regular basis, and that more private sellers can begin to do starting today. And we’re working to implement that series of executive actions that President Obama has taken to strengthen the national background check system as a whole – by addressing gaps, ensuring that federal law enforcement agencies become more uniform in tracing guns recovered during investigations, tearing down barriers that prevent relevant records from being included in the system, and making certain that our laws and regulations are as effective as possible when it comes to identifying those who should not have access to firearms.
In addition, the Administration has called upon the Senate to swiftly confirm Todd Jones as Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives – a critical Justice Department component that has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for six years. Todd's a good man and, if given the chance, will be an outstanding Director. And we’ve also asked Congress to eliminate misguided restrictions that require the ATF to authorize the importation of currently dangerous weapons simply because of their age.
Beyond these proposals – most of which require legislative action – President Obama last week ended what had, in effect, become a “freeze” on rigorous, non-partisan research into gun violence – and effective strategies for its prevention – by the Centers for Disease Control. He instructed leaders across the Administration to work with individual communities and school districts to develop detailed plans to make schools safer. And he directed relevant agencies to finalize regulations, under the Affordable Care Act, that will increase access to mental health services – and to issue guidance making clear that, under current law, doctors are not prohibited from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement.
Each of these measures represents an essential part of any serious effort to eradicate gun violence. Contrary to what a few have said, all of the President’s actions have been consistent with the historical use of executive power – and none will impinge on the Second Amendment rights of responsible, law-abiding citizens and gun owners.
Of course, fully implementing these actions – and securing the passage of the proposals we’ve submitted to Congress – will require elected and appointed leaders across the country to rise to this occasion; to set aside the differences that, at times, have divided us from one another; and to put the interests of those we serve above that which might be politically expedient or professionally safe.
I realize that this won’t always be easy – but, as you all know, public service seldom is. With your support and assistance, I’m confident that we can cut down on the violence that steals too many promising futures each year. And I look forward to working with each of you in building upon the progress that’s already been established, and the history of achievement – and close partnership – that we’ve gathered to celebrate today.
Over the last four years alone – alongside New York’s outstanding United States Attorneys and others – many of this Association’s members have helped to identify and prosecute felons in possession of firearms, as part of a joint initiative with the ATF known as “Operation Triggerlock.” Others have helped to disrupt human traffickers; to secure significant sentences against those convicted of hate crimes and child exploitation; and to keep illicit drugs off of our streets. Some of you have led efforts to dismantle a violent robbery crew that operated up and down the East Coast, that included a former police officer who committed robberies in uniform. Still others have contributed to long-running investigations and prosecutions of devastating financial fraud crimes, including massive Ponzi schemes. And, as a result of increased cooperation with the FBI, the DEA, and local police forces – many of you have played key roles in our joint efforts to crack down on gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled activity across New York State.
Now, there’s no question that we can all be proud of these, and many other, individual achievements – along with the full range of contributions for which today’s awardees are being honored. At the same time, I recognize, as you do, that we cannot yet be satisfied. And that’s why my colleagues and I are working hard to capitalize on the progress we celebrate today – by expanding existing partnerships; forging new relationships with state, local, tribal, and community leaders; and providing additional support to this Association’s members and allies.
Under flagship grant programs like Byrne-JAG – through which the Justice Department has awarded more than $3.5 billion to state and local partners since 2009 – we’re helping to close budget gaps and increase access to the resources you need. Over the last four years alone, Byrne-JAG funding has made a difference in communities of all sizes across this State – from Schenectady to Suffolk; from Buffalo, to Spring Valley, to New York City. Thanks to the Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance – under the leadership of Director Denise O’Donnell, who’s here with us this evening – we’re working with leaders throughout the country to improve information-sharing; to promote rigorous study of crime trends; and to harness the expertise of policymakers, community activists, and law enforcement officials in guiding and informing our activities. We’re investing in state-of-the-art equipment, helping to provide lifesaving training platforms and protective gear, and pioneering “hot spot” strategies to target resources to the areas where they’re needed most. And we’re focusing in on the kinds of proven, data-driven approaches that enable us to grow both tougher and smarter on crime every single day.
As passionate advocates, talented public servants, concerned parents, and – ultimately – optimistic citizens, all of you have essential roles to play in driving these efforts forward. By continuing to ask tough questions – and to push for specific legislative reforms and policy recommendations – each of you can strengthen our ability to keep our neighborhoods safer and our cities more secure. By joining with your colleagues and counterparts at the federal level to reinforce existing anti-violence initiatives – and to advance common-sense measures for addressing gun crime and preventing mass shootings – you can help secure the brighter future that our citizens, and particularly our young people, need and deserve.
So, as we gather this afternoon – to single out a few of the public servants whose achievements have made the past year such a success, and to plan for the challenges ahead – I want to thank you for your leadership, your partnership, and your extraordinary efforts in pursuit of the goals and responsibilities we share. I want to congratulate our awardees on a job well done. And I urge each and every one of you to keep faith in one another; to keep fighting for those you serve; and – above all – to keep up the tremendous work.
Thank you, once again, for all that you do. I’m proud to count you as colleagues and partners. And I look forward to all that we’ll achieve together in the critical days ahead.