Clinton gives gun agents new powers
This appears in USAToday on 2/04/2000
WASHINGTON (AP) - Stepping up pressure on the gun industry, President Clinton Friday gave federal agents new powers to crack down on dealers and pawnbrokers who sell a disproportionate number of the weapons used in crimes.
''We're beginning the most aggressive effort ever undertaken to insure responsible behavior by gun dealers,'' the president said. ''Dealers whose guns most frequently wind up in criminals' hands will now be subject to intense scrutiny by ATF'' - the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
On another front, the White House said Clinton will ask Congress for a new, 25-cent-a-pack federal excise tax on cigarettes. In addition, he proposed that the tobacco industry be charged $3,000 for every smoker under 18 as part of a campaign to reduce sales to minors and eliminate advertising that could encourage children to smoke.
Gun control and anti-tobacco initiatives are familiar elements of Clinton's agenda but also are the source of some of his biggest failures in Congress. Last year, for instance, Congress refused his requests for a 55-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes and tougher restrictions on handgun purchases. Republicans are likely to view Clinton's latest tobacco proposal as yet another tax increase.
Clinton released a report documenting that a small number of gun dealers is responsible for putting a large number of guns in the hands of criminals.
The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms study shows 1% of gun dealers accounts for 57% of guns the ATF can trace from use in a crime back to the point the gun was sold, Clinton's deputy domestic policy adviser, Eric Liu, said.
With that in mind, Liu said the administration will extend the ATF's powers to check up on possible rogue dealers and trace stolen guns. The new powers, which do not require congressional approval, include intense inspections of the dealers most suspected of supplying criminals.
Also, a smaller number of suspect dealers will be required to provide information on the sale of used guns in the same way they now compile data for new guns.
''This is the best thing that can be done, short of new laws ... given the deadlock in Congress,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the most persistent voices in Congress for more gun control.
Schumer released two reports last year that also pointed to a relative handful of suspected dealers as the source of many criminals' guns.
The latest study showed that in 1998, 1,020 of the nation's 83,272 licensed gun dealers and pawnbrokers were each the source of at least 10 guns later traced to crimes, and 132 dealers were linked to 50 or more such guns. Not all the guns were sold directly by the suspect dealers - some apparently were lost or stolen and some passed through multiple hands before they were used in crimes.
Clinton's push for new gun control measures collapsed in Congress last year, despite White House attempts to use public concern over the Columbine High School gun massacre as leverage against the gun lobby.
The White House has pledged to renew the fight this year for trigger locks on handguns and for new laws governing the sale of guns at flea market-style gun shows.
The White House has also made little headway in its attempt to pressure the gun industry to negotiate with cities suing over the cost of gun violence. Representatives of both dealers and manufacturers met separately with White House officials after the administration threatened in December to help bring a national lawsuit, but neither side has had much to say since.
''We've been focused on trying to engage dealers and manufacturers who are serious about changing the way they do business,'' Liu said. He would not comment on whether the new ATF powers give the administration greater leverage in those negotiations.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Association said the new rules are pointless, because the government already has broad power to police dealers and raid those suspected of criminal conduct.
The Clinton administration has failed to use existing laws to go after a variety of gun crimes, NRA spokesman Bill Powers said. He called today's announcements political posturing intended to benefit the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore.
''This is like the standard political strategy - when you're not doing something, have a press conference and make it look like you're doing something,'' Powers said.
The ATF regulations will also target dealers who refuse to cooperate when the agency asks for information on the sale of guns later traced to crimes.
''While the majority of gun dealers are law-abiding businesspeople who recognize the importance of helping law enforcement identify gun criminals, today's report shows the need to focus resources on the relatively small number of dealers and pawnbrokers who are the source of most of the traced crime guns,'' a White House statement said.