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Published: Sunday, 4/23/2000

Locking up bad guys saving lives in 2 cities

"What if the gun nuts are right?" asked Philadelphia's City Paper in its cover story for the week of April 6-13. "Could locking up the bad guys save more lives than gun control? The success of Operation Cease Fire suggests the answer is yes."

The story, written by Noel Weyrich, chronicles the travails of Gerald Smith, 34, arrested in a crackhouse on Jan. 11, 1999, and charged with selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop, and possession of two illegal firearms.

"Even with two robbery convictions . . . Smith likely thought he'd be arraigned, released and home for dinner," Mr. Weyrich said. "Eventually, he'd trade a guilty plea for a suspended sentence and probation."

But Smith didn't get a third chance to ride the merry-go-round that is Philadelphia's felon-friendly judicial system. Under a new program called Operation Cease Fire, Smith's case was shipped over to the U.S. Attorney's office. He was placed in federal custody and tried for violating federal gun laws. Smith "was staring at 30 years of hard time in a federal lockup," Mr. Weyrich wrote.

Since January, 1999, when Operation Cease Fire began, more than 300 of Philadelphia's most egregious gun offenders have been hauled off the streets and into federal court. Of 173 gun cases disposed of, one defendant was acquitted, while 149 others pled guilty and went straight to federal prison.

The number of murders in which firearms were used in Philadelphia has plunged since Operation Cease Fire began. In 1998 there were 272 gun murders in the City of Brotherly Love. Last year there were 231.

The decline in murders has been more profound in Richmond, Va., where Project Exile has been in effect for three years. There were 139 murders in Richmond in 1997, the year Project Exile began. Last year there were 74.

Operation Cease Fire and Project Exile are the only such programs in the country. And they wouldn't exist were it not for the much-maligned National Rifle Association.

"The NRA has spawned a federal gun-enforcement movement that has taken the U.S. Justice Department by storm," Mr. Weyrich wrote.

After being criticized by the NRA for laxity in enforcement of existing gun laws, President Clinton asked Congress this year for $280 million for 1,000 new prosecutors and investigators to work gun cases. Soon other cities will have their own versions of Operation Cease Fire and Project Exile.

When a 6-year-old black boy shot and killed a 6-year-old white girl in Michigan in February, most liberals blamed the NRA. Tragedy would have been averted, they say, if only there had been a law requiring use of trigger locks.

The little boy's mother is a dope addict. He was living in a crackhouse with his uncle, for whom there were outstanding felony warrants. His uncle's gun, which the little boy used, had been stolen. Child abuse is against the law. Crackhouses are against the law. Possessing stolen firearms is against the law. But, liberals say, people who violate these laws surely would obey one requiring use of trigger locks. Only "gun nuts" express doubt.

Roughly a third of all violent crimes in the United States are committed by people who are on probation or parole, or who have been released pending trial on earlier offenses. Hardly any of the offenders belong to the NRA.

Liberals favor gun control because it's easier to punish the law-abiding than the lawless. But that doesn't reduce gun deaths. Punishing criminals does.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau.



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