Department of Justice Seal

Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey at the National Association of Attorneys General Winter Meeting

Park City, Utah
Thursday, November 29, 2007 - 12:45 P.M.

Thank you General Wasden. Good afternoon.

It‘s a pleasure to be here with you. I just met with your Executive Committee and I want to take this opportunity to thank them for their leadership. As I said to them, I believe I am the newest Attorney General in the room. So I hope you will bear with me. There is still much I have to learn, and I will be extremely appreciative of any help and guidance you can give me, as your rookie colleague.

I would like to begin by congratulating you on the 100th anniversary of this organization. It is precisely in times such as these, when so much seems to be changing so quickly, and when the threats we face as a Nation are so grave, that we most appreciate the benefit of longevity, experience, and historical perspective that your organization provides.

As Attorneys General, we share not only a title, but many of the same goals and challenges. We have much to learn from each other, and much to gain by working together. I firmly believe that though we bring different perspectives to our jobs, we are, and have to be, partners in our shared pursuit of justice.

During my time in office, I want to continue to emphasize the broad-based cooperation between state and federal law enforcement.

I would like to highlight today three areas of cooperation where I think we have been successful.

First, I know that when he spoke before this group in June, Attorney General Gonzales discussed with you the importance of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

This is a vital tool for enforcing federal and state firearms eligibility laws, allowing federal firearms licensees to do instant background checks on gun purchasers. It provides access to nationwide databases, ensuring that one state‘s information about a warrant or other disqualifying information can be available when a prohibited person tries to buy a firearm in a different state.

Indeed, following the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in April of this year, the President ordered a review by the Attorney General, and the Secretaries of Health and Human Services, and Education. This review, which was aided by the hospitality of a dozen states hosting events around the country, concluded in part that accurate and complete information on individuals prohibited from possessing firearms is essential to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

For this system to be most effective, and existing state and federal laws enforced, it is essential that all states submit, or make available, appropriate information about people prohibited from possessing firearms, regardless of whether that prohibition results from a federal or state law.

But as of June, only 23 states were providing to NICS information on persons disqualified from possessing firearms for reasons related to mental health. And some of those that were participating only provided a small number of records.

In September, however, NAAG issued a report addressing school and campus safety. One recommendation in that report called for states to enhance their laws to ensure that data can be shared with NICS. I want to commend you for your efforts on this issue. I pledge to you that the FBI, ATF and DOJ leadership stand ready to offer any further help we can.

With your cooperation and the leadership of state officials, the FBI tells me they have recently doubled the number of such mental health records. I want to thank you personally for the great strides that have been made since that time, and ask for your continued help.

As the Virginia Tech tragedy made clear, it is vital that NICS have accurate and complete information on persons prohibited from possessing firearms because of mental health history. Several states have begun submitting records that previously had not, or have worked to increase the number of records they submit.

As of November first, 32 states have submitted records. Ohio increased its records from just a handful to more than 7,000. And California recently made more than 200,000 available. Though there is more to be done, that is tremendous progress, and I want to thank those states — particularly California - for the hard work I know they have put into this effort.

As the information available to NICS increases, we can ensure that required background checks are thorough and complete, while still protecting privacy. I look forward to reporting back to you in due course that all 50 states are providing prohibiting mental health records to NICS, so that we can have the most complete and accurate background check possible to protect public safety.

Second, sharing information -- whether it is from one government agency to another, or from all of us to our citizens -- is a vital part of being prepared against all threats. You know as well as I do how important it is that we have all of law enforcement on the same page.

To help achieve that goal, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and I have sent to every governor a letter asking that each state designate a primary fusion center to coordinate the gathering, processing, analysis, and dissemination of terrorism, law enforcement and homeland security information.

Because several states have multiple organizations that can fill this important role, it is imperative that each state designate one fusion center. This center should be able to issue alerts and warnings, plan for the protection of critical infrastructure, analyze threats, and conduct appropriate training and exercises.

Some states have already taken this important step, and for that I thank you. For those of you from states that have not yet designated a fusion center, I hope that you will work closely with your governor and homeland security advisors to get this done.

And third, I want to speak with you today about what we are doing, and can do together, to combat violent crime. I know former Attorney General Gonzales addressed this issue when he last met with you, but violent crime continues to present some of the greatest challenges for both federal and state officials.

We have seen recently that some places in our country are experiencing an increase in certain types of violent crime. These data further underscore the importance of the Department‘s commitment to work with our state and local partners through successful programs like Project Safe Neighborhoods, our anti-gang initiatives, and combined federal and local task forces such as the Violent Crime Impact Teams and Safe Streets Task Forces — all of which have helped convict criminals and made a difference in the communities they serve.

The Department‘s violent crime strategy was developed to help state and local law enforcement agencies, which remain our communities‘ first line of defense against crime. We know that this is first and foremost a local issue; and we are committed to doing all that we can to support you and your local counterparts.

Our strategy includes funding for state and local law enforcement, enhanced prevention efforts and a crackdown on America‘s most violent offenders.

As part of that strategy, this past summer, the Department set up new violent crime task forces; conducted multiple, targeted gang sweeps and fugitive round-ups in many of your states; and sent to Congress comprehensive legislation to strengthen federal laws targeting violent criminals.

As just one example of how well these programs can work, the U.S. Marshals Service conducted 27 FALCON operations nationwide this past summer. FALCON stands for Federal And Local Cops Organized Nationally, and the program targets fugitives from justice. These FALCON operations, executed as a partnership between federal and local law enforcement, resulted in the arrest of 6,400 fugitives -- 542 of them were wanted for sexual offenses, and 300 were documented gang members. That‘s 6,400 people taken off the streets; and that can have a real impact on making neighborhoods safer.

To keep this kind of success going, the Department‘s 2008 budget also seeks $200 million to support local violent crime task forces.

I look forward to reviewing this issue to determine what else we can do to assist our state and local partners, so that every city can start to see the lower crime rates many have already realized.

The Department is committed to working collaboratively to do whatever will have the greatest effect. If that means we bring federal charges because the case is stronger in federal court or the sentences are tougher, I want it to be a federal case. If state law works out better, I want that case handed over for state prosecution.

I‘m not interested in who gets the credit, or whose statistics count the case. I‘m interested in doing what needs to be done to reduce crime. I look forward to working with you to confront the challenges we face. If we succeed, we all get and share the credit. Thank you.