Press Center

 Remarks James E. Johnson Under Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement Before the Mayors Gun Task Force Louisville, Kentucky


8/5/1999

FROM THE OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS

LS-45


Thank you Mayor Armstrong for that kind introduction. I am indeed honored to be with you today and would like to express my appreciation to you and members of the Gun Task Force for inviting me. Since my arrival this morning I have experienced what some may describe as that great Louisville hospitality-and I truly appreciate your kindness. And Mr. Mayor, I thank you for your leadership on this issue here in Louisville and nationally.

In our earlier meeting at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I came to appreciate your tremendous understanding of the issues facing us and your strong advocacy on behalf of Louisville.

Mayor Armstrong, members of the Gun Task Force, and distinguished guests, I am pleased to be with you today to share my thoughts on three important issues: the problem of youth violence; how easy access to firearms makes that violence much more deadly; and most importantly, what steps we can take together to address this critical issue.

Many of you know all too well the magnitude and severity of this problem. You have sat with parents who have buried their children. You have tried to console the inconsolable. If today is a typical day, thirteen young Americans will die from gunshot wounds. Thirteen lives full of hopes and dreams will end in tragedy. Thirteen children who could have contributed to their families, schools, neighborhoods, and communities will have their lives cut short.

I am here to bring the Administrations perspective on these issues, to ask you to join us as we redouble our efforts to do more, and to learn more from your experience on the front lines.

For the past six years, President Clinton and Vice President Gore have stood with you in the fight against violent crime: putting more police onto the streets of our neighborhoods and communities; working to prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who should not have them; working to remove from our streets certain high-powered weapons that no one should possess; and working closely with your law enforcement authorities to investigate, to arrest, and to prosecute those who violate our firearms laws.

Let me share with you some concrete evidence of that commitment. In July 1996, President Clinton and the Treasury Department launched a new kind of law enforcement program, the Youth Gun Crime Interdiction Initiative -- YCGII -- to work with cities in targeting firearm violations involving youth and juveniles.

ATF operates the Youth Crime Gun program in 27 cities from Los Angeles to Miami and from Houston to Philadelphia. The Presidents firearms legislation would increase the number of participating cities to 75 by the year 2003. Through the Youth Crime Gun effort, local police and sheriffs departments work with our dedicated ATF agents to trace all recovered crime guns and to identify and arrest illegal gun traffickers and criminal users of firearms. Through the support of Representative Anne Northup -- a strong friend of Treasury enforcement bureaus in the Congress -- this program is now beginning in Louisville.

YCGII and crime gun tracing have helped police departments across the country to identify, to investigate, and to arrest those who put guns out onto the streets and into the hands of gang members, minors, felons, and drug traffickers none of whom should have guns. Police departments that understand how their local illegal gun market operates have a far greater ability to cut off that market and, ultimately, to shut it down.

Let me give you one example of what the YCGII program has accomplished. Between January 1989 and May 1996, a gun store owner in St. Louis, Missouri knowingly sold guns to straw purchasers and falsified forms for straw purchasers. ATF investigators determined that some 350 firearms which had been recovered at crime scenes had all gone through that gun store. Other guns distributed from the store had been used in ten murders, including one during a bank robbery. The bottom line here: as a result of crime gun tracing, the owner and two of his employees pled guilty to a variety of firearms violations; they are currently awaiting sentencing.

Anti-trafficking strategies, of course, are but one piece of the enforcement puzzle. There are others. Earlier this year, President Clinton directed former Secretary Rubin and Attorney General Reno to pull these pieces together by developing an integrated violence reduction strategy. The Presidents Directive calls for us to do more of what you, in this room, are doing in Louisville, drawing on a wide array of resources, talents and perspectives to bear down on this problem.

We know that there are promising approaches to build upon, because we have started them together in a number of cities. Mayors, city councils, police and sheriffs departments, community organizations, ATF, U.S. Attorneys offices, and numerous state and local agencies all work together in these programs with a common aim: to help deter youth violence and to identify illegal suppliers of firearms to gang members and drug dealers. As we develop this national strategy, we will come to you for your experience, your insight, and your support, and we hope to be able to support you, as well, as you continue to grapple with these issues here.

As part of a coordinated effort with State and local officials and law enforcement across the country, this approach has achieved tremendous results. Over the last six years, the number of violent crimes committed with a firearm is down 27 percent. Homicides committed with firearms dropped 24 percent, robbery with firearms 27 percent, and aggravated assault with firearms has dropped 26 percent. But these figures are still too high. Over the same time period, federal, state, and local firearms convictions have risen sharply, and the number of federal cases in which the firearms offender is sentenced to five or more years in prison is also up substantially.

The Brady background check system also contributes to safer streets by preventing felons, juveniles, and other prohibited persons from obtaining a firearm legally from licensed firearms dealers. Over 400,000 such people have been thwarted in their attempts to obtain a firearm from a licensed firearms dealer because of Brady checks.

In short, during the Clinton/Gore Administration, more police are on the street, more of our most violent offenders are going to prison for longer periods of time, and prohibited persons are having a harder time gaining easy access to weapons.

The Administration continues to work vigorously on its enforcement efforts, and wants to do an even better job -- working hand-in-hand with you and other civic and community leaders -- to make our neighborhoods, communities, towns, rural hamlets, and cities safer places to live.

There is a consensus in our country on how to do this. Americans favor smart, tough, and comprehensive enforcement and preventive solutions to decrease the incidence of firearms violence and to make our communities safer. There is a consensus that certain people, such as violent criminals, felons, and unsupervised juveniles, should not have access to firearms and explosives; that we do not need to have certain types of weapons and ammunition in our schools, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our cities; that firearms and explosives must be bought and sold legally and responsibly; and that firearms must be stored safely and securely by their owners so that fewer of our troubled youth will have access to weapons that can kill and maim, and so that fewer still will end up as needless victims of an accidental pull of the trigger.

More federal laws and more federal, state, and local prosecutions are, of course, essential to our success in achieving these common goals, but enforcement alone will not eliminate the serious problem of youth violence.

The Clinton/Gore Administration has set forth a legislative package designed to pursue these aims. Let me focus on three core principles of these proposals: keeping guns out of the hands of our young people; stopping the illegal trafficking of firearms; and preventing the tragic and accidental deaths that happen all too often as the result of the improper storage of firearms.

Every day, we are reminded that guns and young people are often a lethal mix. President Clintons bill aims to reduce youth violence by raising the age for youth possession of a handgun from 18 to 21, and by banning juvenile possession of semi-automatic assault rifles.

We need to continue to target the criminal behind the criminal: the illegal gun trafficker. The Presidents bill will give law enforcement a number of new tools with which to attack the illegal gun market. It will close the gun show loophole by imposing mandatory record keeping and background check requirements. It will double the penalties on illegal traffickers, make straw purchasing tougher, increase ATF inspection and penalty authority over licensed gun dealers, limit the quantity of handguns any person can purchase to one per month, and strengthen ATFs ability to trace crime guns by requiring trace information on secondhand guns sold by dealers.

The legislation also addresses the problem of the child who comes across a weapon and loses his life in a deadly accident. The Presidents bill seeks to prevent tragic and accidental deaths by requiring firearms dealers to provide secure storage or safety devices with every firearm sold, and by holding parents criminally liable for recklessly allowing their children access to their guns, if the children use those guns to cause death or serious bodily injury.

There are other proposals in the Presidents legislative package also designed to combat the illegal or inappropriate possession, trafficking, and use of firearms. Together, they represent sound, common sense, and reasonable approaches to this issue.

The status of the legislation is uncertain. The United States Senate took a promising step forward when, with Vice President Gores tie-breaking vote, it passed legislation that incorporated some, though not all, of these provisions. The House did not incorporate the key Senate provisions -- closing the gun show loophole, mandating the sale of safety devices, banning the importation of large capacity ammunition feeding devices, and limiting the age of firearm possession -- but it did adopt a number of the Administrations enforcement provisions.

The Senate and House have both appointed conferees but it is unclear how they will reconcile the two versions of the bills. The Administration continues to do all we can to encourage them to meet and resolve disagreements and pass strong legislation.

One aspect of the debate we are clear on -- there should be no roll-back of the current law giving the FBI three days to do a background check. Too often, even three days is not sufficient to acquire the information when the FBI must work with local officials to hand-search old records to complete a check.

As President Clinton has remarked many times in connection with these issues, and as he has challenged each of us, we can do better. We must do better.

With respect to the future of gun legislation, I think there is no doubt we are moving toward regulation that will give law enforcement more effective tools in the future. Both the President and the Vice President have mentioned the need to explore some form of licensing of gun owners. However, at the moment, the Administration is focused on passage of the gun legislation that is pending. It is important in its own right.

Before I close, I would like to share with you some personal thoughts and observations. Recently, I went to Colorado to meet with the law enforcement officers and local authorities who responded to the attack at Columbine High School. I don't think that I will ever forget what I saw in Littleton. The school had been stopped cold. As I walked through hallways, I saw all the signs of a vibrant school life: lockers chocked full of books; posters from the student body campaign; and signs cheering on the sports teams. I saw many things that one would expect to see in a place of joy, a place that should have been a haven. But it was no haven. Walls and floors had been pock-marked by bullets and scarred by bombs. The damage, the murder in that place, was brought about by two youths who should never have had access to guns and never have had access to bombs.

Every day, the toll of Columbine is visited on our nation. Everyday, thirteen youngsters disappear forever from our lives as victims of gun violence. They are black and white, Hispanic and Asian American. They live in our cities, our villages and our hamlets. They are all our children. As Treasurys Under Secretary for Enforcement, as a representative of federal law enforcement, and, most importantly, as a father of two little girls, I find that statistic unacceptable. We must all pull together, reaching across political lines, racial lines, and economic lines to confront this terrible problem.

Together, each of us in this room must continue on our important mission. Every life we work to save, every death we work to prevent, will be our victory. Together, we must pledge to recommit ourselves to programs and policies that work, and we can work to develop even better strategies to ensure that our children can live their lives in the freedom and security that should be their birthright.

Thank you.

 


 

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