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Crime may be dropping in US, but gun possession is rising

Agents less likely to target dealers

WASHINGTON -- Early in the summer of 2003, two Baltimore police officers patrolling near Lexington Market saw 24-year-old Michael Awosika pull a sawed-off shotgun from some nearby bushes and stuff it down his pants.

The police chased him through downtown Baltimore, collared him, and then went back to find the shotgun, which he had ditched as he fled.

The officers arrested him, booked him, and put him in jail. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the US Justice Department took the credit, after federal prosecutors arranged a plea agreement on federal charges.

The case is one of thousands that federal authorities have used in recent years to bolster statistics in what critics allege is an effort to blur results and show a successful campaign to reduce gun violence.

But after three years, $1 billion, and a landmark shift in the way the United States deals with gun crime, a bleaker set of numbers tell a different story.

Awosika's case, like at least half of the cases Justice officials cite, was for all practical purposes a local case. But when the bureau, says it opened 29,000 firearm cases last year, it counted the Awosika case because it traced the gun and proved it had crossed state lines. When Attorney General John Ashcroft told an audience three weeks ago, ''We have increased the federal prosecution of gun crimes by 68 percent," he included the Awosika case.

A ''record level of safety," Ashcroft told the crowd, ''has been achieved for all Americans."

That assertion does not reflect the full picture. Overall, crime in the United States has been on a steady decline since 1991, and is at a 30-year low. A closer look shows a troubling new trend: Almost 27 percent of all homicides, robberies, and aggravated assaults were committed with a firearm in 2003, the highest percentage since 1997, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.

By focusing on largely local gun-possession cases, federal prosecutors and bureau agents are increasingly less likely to investigate and prosecute federal gun offenses that target corrupt dealers and traffickers, records show. Law enforcement officials say the results are everywhere: Criminals are obtaining guns more easily.

''The gun problem in this city seems to me to be completely unchecked," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark.

Ashcroft declined to comment about the growth in violent, gun-related crimes, according to Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo.

The Bush administration, the Justice Department, and the ATF, which Justice oversees, have thrown their weight behind a controversial antigun crime initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods, which took effect in 2001.

The program upended a decadelong focus on curtailing illegal gun dealing before the weapons reach the hands of criminals. It is the result of lobbying by the National Rifle Association and others, which have had easy access to top policymakers in the Bush administration. That includes meeting with ATF's new director, Carl J. Truscott, he said in an interview.

Instead, the initiative focuses almost exclusively on prosecuting criminals after they have acquired a firearm or used it to kill, kidnap, rob, or threaten. Rather than targeting dealers or traffickers who distribute firearms to illegal markets, Project Safe Neighborhoods concentrates on two laws: One prohibits a felon from possessing a gun; the other adds a handful of years to defendants' sentences if they used a gun while committing another crime.

Almost 87 percent of all cases the Justice Department prosecuted involving gun crime last year were for violations of those two laws, ATF records show. Meanwhile, the 20 other major federal gun laws, which unlike the possession statutes are seldom covered by state law, have rarely been investigated and even less frequently prosecuted since Project Safe Neighborhoods began.

''There has been virtually no effort on the part of the Bush administration to go after corrupt gun dealers who are controlling the supply of guns to traffickers, straw buyers, and criminal gangs," said Dennis Henigan, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Corallo said: ''There are more Americans who have not been victims of crime than ever before, and that's the point."

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