Thank you, Attorney General Gansler, for those kind words; for your leadership as President of the National Association of Attorneys General; for your service to the State of Maryland; and of course for your friendship over the years. As some of you know, Doug and I once worked together in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. So it’s a special privilege to stand with him today – and a pleasure to be included, once again, in this important annual meeting.
I’d particularly like to welcome this organization’s newest members – the 11 state attorneys general who are participating in this event for the first time. And I’d like to recognize – and thank – all of the good friends and colleagues who are here with us today. Thank you for lending your time, your diverse perspectives, and your immense talents to this Association’s critical work.
Over the past four years, I have been fortunate to work with many of the leaders in this room to confront a range of criminal justice, law enforcement, and national security challenges. Alongside my colleagues and counterparts throughout the Administration – including Vice President Biden, Director Cordray, Comptroller Curry, and Acting Associate Attorney General West, all of whom you’re hearing from this week – we’ve accomplished a great deal by working together across state boundaries and party lines. The Justice Department has benefitted – and, more importantly, the American people have benefitted – from your tireless work, your expert guidance, and your steadfast commitment to doing what’s best for those we’re privileged to serve. And the results of our collaboration speak for themselves.
By helping to strengthen our state and federal criminal justice systems, fighting to expand access to legal services, and advancing critical public safety initiatives and consumer protections, you’ve addressed persistent challenges and improved countless lives. You’ve made crime victims whole again. And you’ve brought assistance – and healing – to troubled areas.
In close partnership with the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, you’ve helped ensure that our approach in identifying and combating fraud targeting consumers, investors, and homeowners, has never been smarter, more systematic, or more effective. Last January, many of you joined with the Justice Department and other partners to bring about the largest joint federal-state residential mortgage settlement in our nation’s history. Since 2009, a number of you also have provided invaluable assistance to the federal investigation into alleged misconduct by Standard & Poor’s Financial Services – behavior that goes to the heart of the recent economic crisis. And no less than 13 of you are moving forward with parallel actions complementing the Department’s civil lawsuit, which I announced earlier this month.
From protecting our national security, to preventing domestic violence, eradicating human trafficking, cracking down on intellectual property crimes, and combating youth violence – my colleagues and I have been proud, and fortunate, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you all. Together, we’ve streamlined key investigative and enforcement activities across multiple agencies and offices – enabling leaders at every level of government to make the most of precious taxpayer resources. As a result, there can be no question that we’re making a meaningful, measurable difference in the lives of our fellow citizens each and every day.
Yet I recognize – as you do – that, for all we’ve accomplished, our work is far from over. When it comes to protecting the safety, and the sacred rights, of the American people, much remains to be done. In too many places, serious – and seemingly intractable – public safety challenges persist. And nowhere is this clearer than in our ongoing efforts to eradicate the gun violence that touches every jurisdiction represented here – and steals too many promising futures each year.
Last December’s horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut stand as shocking reminders of the epidemic that afflicts communities across the country – from inner cities, to rural areas, to tribal lands. But, on a daily basis, this unspeakable tragedy is compounded by countless individual tragedies that take place on our streets; that pass too often unnoticed; and that too frequently decimate the lives of our most vulnerable citizens: our children.
Every loss is shattering and inexplicable – and every one is an outrage. This is why – as concerned citizens, as heartbroken parents, and as public servants empowered to make a difference on behalf of those we’ve sworn to protect – it’s time for each of us to steel our resolve, and renew our commitment to respond to this senseless violence with renewed vigilance.
At every level of the Administration – and particularly at our nation’s Department of Justice – my colleagues and I are determined to work with organizations like this one to build bipartisan consensus for taking decisive action to end gun violence. And we will not rest until we’ve done everything in our power to prevent future tragedies like the one that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Of course, there will never be a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for addressing any challenge of this magnitude – and confronting all of its underlying causes. But we must not allow the size or complexity of this problem to deter us from taking action.
Earlier this year, under the leadership of Vice President Biden, I had the privilege of working with my fellow Cabinet members to assemble a series of common-sense recommendations for keeping guns from falling into the wrong hands, keeping our young people safe, and keeping our neighborhoods and schools more secure. This comprehensive plan – which President Obama announced last month – is founded on a consensus that emerged from the discussions we convened with representatives of more than 200 groups of policymakers, anti-violence advocates, gun owners and retailers, private organizations, police chiefs, and victims of gun crimes. And every step forward is predicated on the principle that President Obama laid out in the weeks after the Newtown tragedy: that “if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence – if there is even one life that can be saved – then we have an obligation to try.”
This obligation has driven the Administration to call on Congress to adopt legislation to require “universal” background checks, so that a full background check is performed every time someone attempts to buy a gun; to impose tough new penalties on gun traffickers who help funnel deadly weapons to dangerous criminals; and to pass a ban on high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, updated and stronger than the legislation enacted in 1994.
Beyond these proposals, agencies across the Administration are currently working to implement the 23 executive actions that President Obama announced in order to provide federal officials – and state leaders like you – with the tools and information we need to keep our citizens safe. For instance, we’ve begun encouraging private sellers to work with licensed gun dealers to run their transactions through the NICS background system – something that many already do on a regular basis, and that more can begin to do starting immediately. We’re moving to strengthen this critical tool by addressing gaps, making certain that the information included in the system is complete and accurate, and examining our laws to ensure they are effective when it comes to identifying those who should not have access to firearms.
We welcome your support for this important work. In ensuring that the NICS background check database is as complete as possible, state records are the lifeblood of the system. And I urge each of you to encourage law enforcement agencies in your state to make the most of the National Crime Information Center by both supplying – and then accessing – pertinent crime data. NCIC helps local law enforcement perform their work more safely – because it enables every officer on patrol to have at his or her fingertips a database of over 11 million records that can be tapped into 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In addition, the President has taken action to end what had essentially become a “freeze” on rigorous, non-partisan research into gun violence – and effective strategies for its prevention – by the Centers for Disease Control. He has instructed relevant agencies to issue guidance making clear that, under current law, doctors are not prohibited from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement. He’s directed agencies to finalize regulations, under the Affordable Care Act, that will increase access to mental health services for all who need them. And he has asked Administration leaders at every level to work alongside school districts and community officials to develop plans to make schools, institutions of higher learning, and houses of worship safer.
Contrary to what a few have said, all of these actions are consistent with the historical use of executive power. Not one will infringe upon the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens and gun owners. And all are essential parts of any serious, comprehensive effort to combat gun violence – and to prevent dangerous people from acquiring, and wreaking havoc with, deadly weapons.
Of course, just as important as translating these proposals into reality – and advancing our robust, national discussion about gun violence prevention – is the need to strengthen existing anti-violence initiatives and support the courageous men and women who routinely risk their lives to keep us safe. To this end, the Justice Department remains fully committed – and I remain determined – to do everything possible to reinforce the “thin blue line” that stands between our people and the criminal element that menaces our communities.
Since 2009, this commitment has led the Department to award more than $3.5 billion to our state and local partners under Byrne-JAG – a grant program that helps agencies and departments across the country close budgetary gaps and gain access to the resources they need. Additional funding streams have been made available through the COPS Hiring Program – which, over the last four years, has awarded more than $1.5 billion to create or protect over 8,000 jobs in local law enforcement. And as we look toward the future, we’re determined to continue making the investments our state and local partners need to build on the progress we’ve established in recent years – and stem the tide of violence against our brave men and women in uniform. That’s why the President’s plan to reduce gun violence calls for $4 billion in COPS Hiring Grants funding to support over 15,000 law enforcement officers.
Through the Department’s Officer Safety Working Group, we’re helping to develop key training and information-sharing platforms to allow officers in the field to better anticipate – and more effectively confront – specific threats in real-time. We’re exploring evidence-based strategies for preventing violent encounters – and helping to make such encounters survivable whenever they do occur. Through innovative programs like VALOR, we’ve disseminated more than 9,000 officer safety toolkits and provided over 5,000 law enforcement officers with tactical training and cutting-edge tools to respond to unpredictable threats – including ambush-style assaults. And thanks to initiatives like the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program – which last year awarded almost $20 million to help more than 4,000 jurisdictions purchase protective equipment – we are, quite simply, helping to save lives – including the lives of at least 13 officers who were saved by vests purchased, in part, with federal funds.
There’s no question that we can all be encouraged by this work – and proud of the results we’ve obtained by working in close partnership with one another. But the reality is that our ability to continue building on this progress will be contingent on Congress adopting a balanced deficit reduction plan – and preventing the untenable reductions that will cut over $1.6 billion from the Justice Department’s budget starting on Friday.
If this so-called “sequester” goes into effect, it will not only curtail the Department’s ability to support our state and local partners, it will have a negative impact on the safety of Americans across the country. Our capacity – to respond to crimes, investigate wrongdoing, and hold criminals accountable – will be reduced. And, despite our best efforts to limit the impact of sequestration, there’s no question that the effects of these cuts – on our state and local partners, on our entire justice system, and on the American people – will be profound.
Today, I’d like to join many of the leaders in this room in urging Congressional leaders to act swiftly in ensuring that the Department will continue to have the funding we need to fulfill our critical missions, support essential allies like you, and keep our citizens safe. Despite the breadth and scope of this challenge – and the other obstacles and disagreements that we’ve faced in recent years – it’s clear that our resolve to stand together in reducing gun violence, preventing mass shootings, protecting the American people, and combating threats to law enforcement, is stronger than ever.
But recent achievements must not be stopping points. And this week – as you move through the ambitious agenda before you, and pledge yourselves once more to the difficult work that lies ahead – I want you to know that the National Association of Attorneys General has, and can always expect, my strongest support. It’s an honor to join you today in pledging my personal and professional commitment to continuing the work that must remain our shared purpose and common cause. I am fortunate to count you as partners and colleagues in fulfilling the sacred public trust that has been afforded to each of us. And I look forward to where our efforts can – and surely will – take us in the months and years ahead.