Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Thank you all for gathering here in Kansas City for the 3rd annual Project Safe Neighborhoods conference. I thank U.S. Attorney Todd Graves and his staff here in the Western District of Missouri for their efforts in hosting this conference in their district.
I also thank all of the PSN partners … from the U.S. Attorneys to the state and local prosecutors; from the representatives of the National District Attorneys Association, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as state and local law enforcement agencies, researchers, and media and community outreach organizations … your hard work, strong support and unity of purpose are making PSN a great success for the American people.
Our nation is emerging from a remarkable four weeks of remembrance and memorial. It began back in the middle of May when we recalled the victims of crime and those men and women of law enforcement who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our safety and security.
That was followed by Memorial Day, the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, and the recollection of D-Day. With these events, we commemorated the service and sacrifice our men and women of the military made and continue to make in defense of freedom.
And finally, last week, we had the death of President Ronald Reagan, and our nation’s farewell to one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century.
Memorials set history in stone, reminding us of the power of individual courage and national unity.
But everything we experienced as a nation these past few weeks … from remembering crime victims, to commemorating the bravery of our men and women in uniform, to recalling the life of the man whose faith in freedom changed the world … all these events transcend memorials. They reflect leadership, in real time and in real life; the leadership of men and women who shape rather than accept destiny.
In 1981, upon taking office, President Reagan led our nation on a course that freed millions of men, women and children from the bondage of totalitarianism. Throughout his presidency, President Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator.” Now, history has shown him to be “The Great Liberator.”
The history for President George W. Bush is yet to be written. But I believe writ large will be that he was a great protector. That through his tough stand against the threat of terrorism and the scourge of violent crime, especially gun crime, President Bush showed bold leadership to protect the lives and liberties of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our citizens.
One clear example of this leadership was in May 2001, when the President unveiled Project Safe Neighborhoods.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is a national initiative modeled on successful, local anti-gun crime programs in districts like Richmond, Virginia and Boston. In just three years, Project Safe Neighborhoods has become that rare government program that lives up to its name. Our neighborhoods, our homes and our families are safer and more secure because of this initiative.
Let’s look at the time frame before Project Safe Neighborhoods was implemented: 1999 to 2000. In that period, criminals using guns murdered more than 16,000 people. In that period, there were 1,096,345 victims of gun crime left maimed or living in fear and dread.
In announcing PSN, President Bush said, quote, “One of our primary jobs is to help people reclaim their neighborhoods and their streets. We must help those who want to live in a comfortable environment feel safe. Our commitment is clear: if you use a gun illegally, you will do hard time.”
Over the past three years, the Justice Department, state and local law enforcement and prosecutors have used the crime-fighting and prosecutorial tools in Project Safe Neighborhoods to pursue gun-toting thugs, prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law, and then keep them locked up.
To accomplish this, the Administration devoted more than one billion dollars to PSN in its first four years. We have hired more than 700 new federal, state, and local gun-crime prosecutors, and trained more than 11,000 people to develop, promote and provide community-based, gun crime prevention and deterrence efforts.
Our focus on gun crime and our efforts to combat it are working.
In the past three years under Project Safe Neighborhoods, we have seen a record-setting level of federal gun crime prosecutions; up 68 percent. More than 10,600 defendants were charged with federal gun crimes in fiscal year 2002. In FY 2003, federal prosecutors charged more than 13,000 offenders with federal firearms offenses, a record increase of almost 23 percent.
These figures are the highest on record in a single year since the Department of Justice began recording this information.
Since FY 2000, across the nation, we are seeing extraordinary increases in gun crime prosecutions:
- Here in the Western District of Missouri: a 79 percent increase;
As a result of these prosecutions, in fiscal year 2003, approximately 93 percent of convicted defendants, who were originally charged with federal firearms offenses, were sentenced to time in prison for convictions on firearms charges or other charges. Seventy two percent were sentenced to more than three years in prison.
The reason we are pursuing, prosecuting and punishing gun-crime offenders is to protect the lives and the freedoms of our citizens. Again, let us use the time prior to PSN’s implementation as a benchmark. In 1997 and 1998, almost a million and a half people faced an offender with a firearm. Four years later, in 2001 and 2002, that number was reduced 34 percent from 1,466,039 to 966,912.
Almost half a million fewer Americans were saved from the violence and fear of gun crimes. There are people behind these statistics … friends, neighbors, and loved ones. Our efforts and PSN’s policies are saving lives and securing our communities for our fellow citizens.
Our aggressive efforts to combat gun crime are in line with the overall success we have had in waging war against all forms of crime. The result is that our citizens and our communities are safer and more secure from all forms of violent crime.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the violent crime rate has plunged to a 30-year low.
In the years 2001 and 2002, compared to 1999 and 2000, almost one million fewer Americans were victims of violent crime. 27 percent fewer people were robbed. 23 percent fewer men and women were victims of aggravated assault. And 27 percent fewer women … sisters, mothers, and extended family members … were raped.
These numbers are good. But no level of crime is acceptable to President Bush or the Department of Justice, to law enforcement officers on the street, or to the citizens they protect. No robbery or rape is acceptable to the victims of a robbery or a rape. No death of a police officer is tolerable to a nation that respects justice and the rule of law.
Every day, law enforcement on every level is working together for the safety of our citizens. Our ability to continue driving violent crime to historic lows is the result of your hard work and your commitment to justice. And for that I thank you.
PSN is not just a prosecution program – it is a comprehensive program. We are achieving our goals of reducing illegal gun possession and abuse by not stopping at merely prosecuting the gun-toting criminals. We are cutting off the supply of illegal guns at the source by targeting those who put these illegal guns out on the streets and into the hands of criminals.
With the help of PSN, we are also communicating our message that gun crime means hard time to would-be offenders. We are setting youth on the right path and providing resources to former offenders so that that they do not commit a gun crime again.
One such PSN resource … Project Sentry … focuses on gun crime involving juveniles. Project Sentry prosecutes gun crimes by juveniles and works to deter juvenile gun crime, including school and gang-related gun violence. The Department of Justice has placed a Project Sentry prosecutor in each of the 93 U.S. Attorneys offices.
Project Safe Neighborhoods has created a national network that, on every level, is changing the lives and enhancing the freedoms for our citizens. The last three years represent a record of great success. But they do not represent a complete record. They do not represent a sufficient success.
Today, I am announcing the release of $43 million in grants, which will be distributed and used to further the goals of every Project Safe Neighborhoods task force in the country. This is a commitment of resources to match the resolve that has been expended and exhibited to make PSN a great crime-fighting success story.
We live in a time of great challenge. But America’s strength flows from a well-spring of freedom that has sustained us in times of trial throughout our history; a well-spring you are defending from violence and fear here at home.
In another time of great challenge for our nation, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the soldiers of the Union Army who were fighting to preserve the union and expand freedom.
The hymn has been played often during the past month, most recently at the state funeral of President Reagan. The 5th verse of the hymn carries a charge that President Reagan held close to his heart.
When Howe originally wrote the song in 1861, the 5th verse said, in part, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Such a commitment to sacrifice on behalf of a nation and an ideal is what has enabled America to serve as a beacon for freedom the world over.
But in the early 1920s, the 5th verse was changed to, “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” For us, as it was for President Reagan, the revised verse is a fitting charge to keep.
The work we are achieving on the streets of America, eliminating violent crime and extinguishing gun crime, is allowing our citizens to live their lives with expanded safety and unencumbered freedom.
Together, we have achieved great things for the American people. I ask that all of you continue to work together to make Project Safe Neighborhoods a success. Our unity of purpose has been a hallmark, and it heralds greater things in our fight against the scourge of gun crime. Through this unprecedented partnership, we are turning the tide on gun crime. We are taking gun-wielding criminals off our streets. We are achieving justice for our citizens. We are living to make men free.
Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. And thank you for the freedom you are protecting and achieving for the American people.
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