The Magazine

Hair-Trigger Politics

They won't admit it, but Clinton and the NRA agree on more than you think

Mar 27, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 27 • By ANDREW PEYTON THOMAS
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RARELY DOES President Clinton encounter a political actor as demagogic as he is, so you could say he finally met the enemy he deserves in his fight with the National Rifle Association. The NRA fired first last week with a TV ad in which president Charlton Heston called on the president to stop misrepresenting the facts about gun control: "Mr. Clinton, when what you say is wrong, it's a mistake. When you know it's wrong, that's a lie." NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre followed up by asserting on This Week that Clinton "needs a certain level of violence in this country," and that he's "willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda and his vice president, too."


The remarks clearly rankled Clinton -- particularly Heston's well-delivered jibe, though LaPierre's tasteless rhetoric presented the riper target. Clinton spent the rest of the week quoting LaPierre's hyperbole and pressing into political service the children slain recently in America's schoolhouses, as he advocated greater federal regulation of gun ownership.


Lost in the exchanges was the gravamen of the NRA's original complaint against Clinton: that his administration has a poor record of enforcing existing gun laws. The NRA points to a sharp decline in the number of referrals by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) for federal gun-law prosecutions. The administration has responded to this criticism by denying it, and at the same time seeking $ 280 million in additional funding to address it. This money, proposed as part of the president's budget, would go to hire more ATF agents and inspectors and federal prosecutors.


In making its case against the administration, the NRA touts a study of ATF referrals culled from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a database of federal prosecutions. Published in 1999, the TRAC study found that from 1992 to 1998, the number of ATF-referred cases plunged from 9,885 to 5,510 -- a 44 percent decrease. The study also calculated that the median prison sentence for ATF-referred cases fell from 57 months in 1996 to 46 months in 1998. These trends paralleled significant staff cuts at ATF in the 1990s, including a 14 percent reduction in criminal investigators.


The Justice Department has subtly disparaged the Syracuse study while proffering more favorable statistics of its own. A Justice Department spokesperson, while acknowledging, "I've not really looked at the gun study," cautions vaguely: "There's a general problem with a TRAC study because it involves lumping numbers together which don't necessarily have context or meaning." TRAC studies, in fact, are well regarded among criminal justice professionals. More substantively, Justice points out that the number of federal cases involving gun-law violations (as opposed to ATF referrals) actually rose 16 percent from 1992 to 1999.


Still, even Justice's own statistics reveal interesting variations within that period. From 1992 to 1997, the number of firearms cases tumbled, from 4,754 to 3,703. In 1998, the numbers rebounded to 4,391. And only in 1999 -- the year the TRAC study came out and was trumpeted by the NRA -- did the number surge to 5,500, a jump which yielded the over-all 16-percent increase.


In light of these numbers, the Clinton administration's request for $ 280 million for additional firearms-law enforcement looks like tacit acceptance of the NRA critique. And indeed, if administered properly, this proposed funding could produce significant gains in crime control.


One recent federal experiment in stricter gun-law enforcement in Richmond, Virginia, has already had a substantial chilling effect on firearms traffickers in the city. Convicted felons in Richmond who are discovered to be in possession of a firearm and in violation of a federal law are referred automatically for federal prosecution. A conviction for violating federal firearms laws carries a minimum sentence of five years without parole in a federal prison out of state -- hence the name of the undertaking, Project Exile. The NRA has spent $ 1 million in advertising on radio, television, and city buses to publicize Project Exile.


Since the program began in 1997, the number of murders in Richmond has been cut by a third. More armed criminals received prison sentences in Virginia in 1998 than in California, New York, and New Jersey combined. Several criminals interviewed by the press admitted that they no longer carry firearms in the city because they don't want to be "Exiled."