WASHINGTON — Spurred by rising public alarm over urban violence--and perhaps recent poll results--the Clinton Administration has decided to embark on a broad campaign to battle the symptoms and causes of the American culture of violence.
In the same week that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has threatened a crackdown on Hollywood over television violence, President Clinton has embraced legislation to ban possession of all handguns by young people. And earlier this month, Hillary Rodham Clinton disclosed her intention to make battling violence her next crusade after health care reform.
While adversaries call this posturing on what many polls show is the public's No. 1 anxiety, Clinton aides said that the recent moves are a prelude to proposals that go well beyond those included in the pending crime bills. The plans are still in early stages but they are likely to include proposals further limiting the availability of guns, stepping up public education programs and further influencing portrayals of violence in the media.
"This is going to be broader than what we've seen," said a senior White House aide.
Aides said that the Clintons are personally troubled by the issue, although the new White House efforts also are intended to reap sizable political dividends. The adoption of a series of new state gun-control laws and the electoral strength of gun-control candidates, such as New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio, has demonstrated a shift in public sentiment about the need to contain guns, especially in the hands of minors, say political analysts.
Other polling has indicated that, amid an outbreak of highly publicized shootings of children, foreign tourists and others, the public is yearning for more action. With its appeal for the broad center of American politics, Clinton strategists hope that their effort could strengthen the President's hand on more troublesome elements of his domestic agenda, from the North American Free Trade Agreement to health care and welfare reform.
It is not clear, of course, that any of the measures the White House will propose would make much headway in the struggle against violence. Many may be elements of earlier anti-crime programs and Clinton aides are the first to acknowledge the complexity of the issue.
"We don't have all the answers," a White House aide said.
Further, some aspects of the strategy, such as the approach to television violence, threaten direct conflict with such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, which often support Democratic positions. Those groups were quick this week to denounce Reno's warnings as a threat to First Amendment freedoms that could have no real effect on limiting violence.
"Those who are focusing too heavily on TV violence betray a little bit of an anti-Hollywood bias and a very narrow focus," said Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a liberal constitutional rights group. Calling Reno's threat to force TV producers to cut violence "unprecedented," he said that heavy emphasis on curbing media violence could "create problems with some of the President's strongest backers during the campaign."
Other leaders of liberal groups said they fear Reno's statement is a sign that the Administration's anti-violence effort might be transformed into heavy-handed efforts at government control. But measures aimed at curbing violence appear to be good politics right now, particularly for a President who is desperately seeking to convince middle-class Americans that he is in their corner.
The President himself has been surprised and gratified by the recent positive reaction to gun-control comments, including to audiences that presumably should include a healthy share of conservatives.
He was taken back by the warm reaction to such rhetoric last week at the University of North Carolina. "There're not 50,000 liberals in the whole state," he raved to a friend.
The anti-violence statements have been applauded by members of the party's more conservative wing, many of whom would like to see a broader shift by the Administration toward greater emphasis on the obligations and responsibilities of citizens.
"It is welcome that they are focusing on what many Americans believe is the most pressing problem facing the country," said Will Marshall, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrist and conservative Democrats.
An interagency task force, including officials of the Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services, has been at work developing proposals to curb violence. While their final shape is unclear, the proposals will be based on the principle that curtailing violence "will require changing behavior in many parts of society," said one aide.
It is likely to include some further efforts to get Hollywood to deglamorize its portrayal of violence. Officials have not yet decided whether they would try to accomplish that through appeals to entertainment companies or some kind of rule making.