Will Ashcroft Differ From Reno in Prosecuting Gun Related Crime?

By Cheryl K. Chumley | July 7, 2008 | 8:03 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - It will be like night and day, one analyst said, describing how Attorney General John Ashcroft's policies regarding gun crime will compare with his predecessor's, Janet Reno.

"He will focus more on the criminal, and less on the tools used to create crimes," said H. Sterling Burnett, a senior policy analyst for the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis.

By contrast, Burnett continued, the Clinton administration and Reno tried to reduce gun-related violence primarily in the political arena, waging legal war against weapons manufacturers until polls told them the public actually preferred to see criminals punished rather than to see lawsuits filed.

"Reno focused on the manufacturer, the retailer, on access to firearms issues, per se, as goals of reducing the amount of guns that flowed to criminals," he said. "But the problem with that is it affects everybody, even the law-abiding. Ashcroft would not support the lawsuit against the gun manufacturers as Reno did."

Ashcroft will also likely emphasize state rights and federalist principles, and the enforcement of the existing 20,000 local, state, and federal gun-related laws over the creation of new ones, Burnett said.

According to Burnett, Ashcroft might suggest that if states stiffen their sentences for gun-related convictions with ten-year maximum penalties, those states could receive block grants from the federal government.

Ashcroft might also encourage states to adopt such crime-fighting programs as Project Exile, which was implemented in Richmond, Va. in 1997 and is seen as the catalyst to the community's reported 30 percent decrease in homicides.

"There were no new laws created for Project Exile," said Cynthia Price, director of media relations for the Richmond Police Department. "It was started using the existing laws, but rather than prosecuting at the state level, we prosecuted at the federal level."

That method resulted in stiffer sentences for criminals convicted of illegal weapons possession, subsequently lowered crime statistics, and eventually, Burnett said, led to the Clinton administration's recognition of the program's success. Because of the publicity generated from Project Exile, he continued, Clinton shifted his stance on gun control and began calling for harsher punishments for those convicted of illegal weapons possession, with less emphasis on social and rehabilitation services.

Project Exile calls for local, state, and federal law enforcement and prosecution agencies to collaborate during investigations, arrests, and court procedures, and to capitalize on existing gun laws by maximizing the number of those jailed for illegal possession.

"These efforts appear to be stemming the tide of violence, with homicides for the period of November 1997 through July 1998 running more than 65 percent below the same period one year ago," wrote Richmond attorney David Schiller, in a 1998 article about the Project Exile program, published in the New York Times.

Not everyone favors such an approach to curbing gun violence, or believes that Ashcroft's policies will deviate drastically from Reno's.

Constitutionalists and Second Amendment rights advocates call the Project Exile program a "step in the right direction [in terms of] getting tough on real crime," but that the federal government's role should be abolished.

"We would like to exile Project Exile because of the federal involvement," said Erich Pratt, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America. "We would just encourage states and localities to run that program without federal involvement."

Pratt also said he had misgivings about Ashcroft's commitment to upholding gun rights, and referred to his record of voting on Second Amendment issues while senator as "spotty."

For instance, Pratt said, Ashcroft voted for a crime bill that would have effectively put gun shows out of business, against a senator's filibuster of that same bill, and in favor of another measure that would have penalized adults aged 18 to 20 for "simply touching" or possessing a firearm.

"He's sometimes voted in favor of Second Amendment rights, sometimes against them," he said. "We are certainly hopeful he will do the right thing, but there were things in his record that showed an anti-Second Amendment stance.

"I do think Ashcroft will make a strong case for enforcing the gun laws, but at the same time, I don't think he'll be adverse to creating new ones," Pratt continued.

Of current concern to the Gun Owners of America is President George W. Bush's proposals, as outlined by a White House spokesman, to increase the minimum age for those seeking to purchase firearms and to mandate that all weapons be equipped with safety locks.