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Bush Seeks to Win Support for Anti-Crime Bill

June 16, 1989|DOUGLAS JEHL | Times Staff Writer

GLYNCO, Ga. — Seeking to muster new momentum for his sweeping anti-crime initiative, President Bush traveled Thursday to a federal law enforcement training center to pay formal tribute to agents killed in the line of duty, hailing them as "domestic freedom fighters in the war on crime."

The President's appearance--beginning with a somber wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial for slain officers and ending with a pledge to lift the nation from this "shadow of fear"--was intended to rekindle support for an initiative that has been given little emphasis since it was unveiled a month ago.

The proposed $1.2-billion package would seek to ease burdens on a criminal justice system strained to overcapacity. It would increase federal prison capacity by nearly 80%, add hundreds of new agents and prosecutors to federal law enforcement agencies, and require stiff mandatory sentences for criminals who use semi-automatic weapons in the commission of a crime.

Cheers From Audience

"Let's put the handcuffs on criminals, not the criminal justice system," Bush said, winning cheers from an audience of federal officers and their families sweltering in the summer sun.

With uniformed officers arrayed at his back, Bush used the occasion to sign a letter sending the proposed legislation to Congress. As he acknowledged, such directives are usually approved without ceremony and dispatched to Capitol Hill via "an aide on a 10-minute car ride down Pennsylvania Avenue."

But, he told the agents, "when it comes to crime, you deserve more than business as usual. . . . We intend to back you where it counts--on the streets and in the courtroom."

The President plans to further reinforce his anti-crime message today when he orders the nation's 96 U.S. attorneys to scale back sharply on the plea bargains they offer to violent offenders. The new guidelines, part of the anti-crime package, are designed to ensure that such felons serve mandatory prison sentences.

The stepped-up White House emphasis on the crime package seems aimed primarily at Congress, whose members have voiced increasing skepticism about the White House package during the lull that has followed its unveiling.

In contending with the policy dilemma posed by the increasing use of semi-automatic weapons such as the AK-47 in crimes, Bush elected not to seek a complete ban on the guns.

Instead, he called for new restrictions on cartridge clips that enable such guns to fire large quantities of bullets rapidly and pledged to enforce an existing law banning the importation of weapons deemed unsuitable for sporting purposes.

That position has angered gun control advocates from both parties, including Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who complain that the proposal does not go far enough in addressing problems posed by domestically produced semi-automatic weapons, such as the AR-15.

In his speech here Thursday, Bush went out of his way to defend his plan to limit the size of assault-gun cartridge clips to 15 rounds. Speaking as a hunter, he said: "I just don't believe that sportsmen require the 30-round magazine if their legitimate purpose is sporting."

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