Laying Down the Law

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President Clinton could not have known, of course, that the week he picked to talk about crime would be the week crime was what everyone was talking about. On Tuesday, there was the man in fatigues who shot up a McDonald's in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The same day in Kansas City, Missouri, a 15-year-old went to the movies with his mother -- and shot her as they watched the film. "I don't know why I did it," he said. On Thursday in Burlingame, California, a man walked into a real estate office, shot one broker and wounded another before trying to kill himself. He had just been evicted from his home.

And then Friday brought yet more troubling news, when police announced that they had identified the body of James Jordan, father of superjock Michael Jordan, shot to death and floating in a creek in South Carolina. That was the kind of crime people will be talking about for a long time.

It was a fitting week, then, for Clinton to stand in the Rose Garden, ringed by rigid men and women in blue, and declare his support for a major crime bill based on the premise that "the first duty of any government is to try to keep its citizens safe, but clearly too many Americans are not safe today." Both the mood of the country and the climate of his presidency called for the flashing of a sword. That only left the question of whether the bill would pass and whether it would work.

Clinton's plan, which will be formally introduced once Congress returns from its summer recess, has the distinct ring of traditional Republican law-and- order rhetoric, though it includes a basket of provisions designed to assuage liberal Democrats. The new bill calls for spending $3.4 billion for 50,000 new police officers, a "major down payment," Clinton said, on his campaign promise for 100,000 new cops. A centerpiece of the plan is the Brady bill, which would mandate a five-working-day waiting period for gun purchases. Other provisions would send young offenders to military-style boot camps instead of prison. Clinton would limit the ability of those convicted of capital crimes to file "habeas corpus" appeals endlessly through the federal courts, and at the same time expand to 47 the number of crimes subject to the death penalty.

Clinton also moved by Executive Order to ban the import of assault pistols like the Israeli-made Uzi and tightened up the licensing rules for gun dealers to make it harder for people to run gun shops out of hotel rooms or the trunks of their cars. Under his new rules, anyone applying for a permit to sell weapons will be fingerprinted and subject to a background check.

After a summer of fighting partisan attempts to label him a "tax-and-spend liberal," Clinton's sprawling crime package should provide some much needed political relief. It allows him to do something both popular and tough before having to ask for yet another tax increase to fund his health-care reform package. Unlike the essential, but invisible, benefits of deficit reduction, putting more police on the streets yields an immediate and tangible dividend. And by choosing an image dear to the hearts of Republicans, he had a chance of avoiding another ugly, partisan showdown. The bill's drafters took pains to appeal to the members across the aisle. "We took the best from both sides," said one. "That's what makes it a good bill."

Clinton, however, is fighting a credibility gap on the law-and-order issue. In one sense he is bound by the traditions of a party that has never been very well equipped for crime fighting. The Democrats' weapons of choice are reason and opportunity; they want to understand crime as much as to fight it, to offer the criminal a chance at a better life so he will see the error of his ways. In his years with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton tried to challenge party orthodoxy by getting beyond the debate over the reasons for crime and talking more about the responses to it. He has long advocated some of the ideas that surfaced last week, like spending $100 million to establish a "police corps" that would encourage young people to serve as police officers for four years in exchange for college scholarships. And he has been a firm supporter of the death penalty, to the point of flying home in the middle of his presidential campaign to deny clemency for a convicted murderer. "It's an issue that unites inner cities and suburbs," says Al From, executive director of the D.L.C. "Clinton has always understood that."

The problem is that the public, for now, doesn't seem to believe it. For all Clinton's efforts, the polls reveal a skeptical audience. One survey by USA Today/Gallup/CNN released last week showed that Clinton's approval rating for handling crime so far -- 32%, compared with 54% disapproval -- was worse than his overall job-approval rating. Yet he is likely to get a boost from acting on the issue. In a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week, 61% of those surveyed say crime is increasing in their community and 57% think the Federal Government can do something significant about the problem.

To pass his legislation, Clinton must hold together a fragile alliance of liberals and conservatives. George Bush sponsored a package that was similar in many ways to Clinton's, only to see it die in the Senate. To forestall such failure, Clinton's bill depends largely on a clever bit of horse trading. The idea is that liberals -- eager to appear hard-nosed -- would accept the death penalty and the limitations on habeas corpus appeals in order to get the gun control they so ardently desire, while conservatives, eager to appear constructive, would make the reverse trade.

The main sticking point was habeas corpus, the constitutional provision that allows state prisoners to challenge their convictions in federal courts. Since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976, some defendants have used the habeas rules to extend the appeals process and delay executions for a decade on average. The Supreme Court in recent years has scaled back the ability of convicts to appeal, and liberals in Congress have tried to restore those rights through legislation. Clinton's point man, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, spent much of last winter working on finding a compromise that both sides could swallow. Under the new bill, an inmate would be limited to one habeas petition after all other appeals have been exhausted and would have to file it within six months of his final state appeal.

That was not likely to satisfy civil-liberties advocates, who can point to numerous cases in which underpaid, overworked or inexperienced defense lawyers missed crucial evidence that surfaced only on appeal. Biden and Attorney General Janet Reno tried to head off that objection by offering to guarantee and fund competent, experienced lawyers for defendants in capital cases. "Good-quality defense counsel in death-penalty cases reduces trial errors," says a law-enforcement representative who took part in the negotiations. "We can live with that. We can even live with federally mandated counsel standards if they're not intrusive."

But congressional liberals are still bound to resist expanding capital punishment, especially given the absence of evidence that doing so will actually prevent violent crime. "If you can show me how adding 50 more death- penalty provisions is going to deter one person, then I am for it," says Michigan Congressman John Conyers, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Why not 100 more? How about I reach your 100 and I bid 110, and someone else that's tougher on crime is for 150? So what? The one thing that's been proved in my 30 years in this business is that you can't deter people by guaranteeing them that they will go to jail or be executed."

Liberals did find some things to cheer, however, such as the more holistic approach to drug offenders. "If you have mandatory drug treatment in the prisons, you can get a lot done," says New York Congressman Charles Schumer. "You say to criminals, 'You're not getting out of jail till you're drug- free.' " Others applauded the $100 million in grants to schools to develop anticrime programs, and the idea of sending young, first-time offenders to boot camps, where they get heavy discipline and a second chance, rather than sending them to jail for their graduate training in criminal behavior.

As for the expansion of community policing, the obstacle was not political but financial. "It's only fair," said New York's Schumer of the proposal to fund 50,000 new police officers. "If Kansas gets wheat subsidies, we should get cop subsidies," he told the New York Daily News, though there was no guarantee in the package that big cities would have first claim on the new police officers.

Though some Republicans reacted favorably to Clinton's bill, particularly since it incorporated so many pieces of their platform, they were unwilling to cede him so valuable an issue. G.O.P. lawmakers complained that the amount of money proposed for new prisons, $700 million, fell far short. They also wanted to expand mandatory-sentencing guidelines, which Attorney General Reno loudly, adamantly opposed.

Of greater importance than the politics, of course, is the impact. As with other bills that get chewed up and spit out by the legislative machinery, this one is not expected by criminologists to have a stunning effect on crime. Though most Americans support capital punishment (77% in the TIME/CNN poll), * many crime experts challenge its usefulness for anything other than pure retribution. The problem, they argue, is that the fastest growth in violent crime is occurring among teenagers -- from 1986 to 1991, murders committed by teens ages 14 to 17 grew by 124%, while among adults 25 and over, murder actually declined slightly -- and teenagers are least likely to be concerned with the threat of the electric chair. "Many of them face death every day of their lives," says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. "They don't think about the possibility -- as remote as it is -- that they'll someday die for a crime. These kids are all armed and in gangs, and they worry about dying next week."

Likewise the Brady bill, even combined with Clinton's Executive Order banning the import of assault pistols, will have little impact on young men who already have their guns or can easily steal them. The weapons of choice on the streets right now are made in America. Guns like the TEC-9, MAC-10 and MAC-11 semiautomatic, though inaccurate, are cheap, terrifying, easily hidden and handily converted to automatic. Sales have soared since 1989, when President Bush banned the import of semiautomatic assault rifles such as the Chinese-made AK-47 knock-off used by a deranged gunman to shoot schoolchildren in Stockton, California, in 1989.

Cash-hungry nations like China and the former Eastern bloc countries have found a niche market in guns that can slip in even under the new regulations. "As opposed to cheap, shoddy Saturday-night specials," says Jack Killorin, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, "you've got very high-quality firearms coming in at bargain-basement prices." A fine Czech Republic semiautomatic handgun called the CZ, formerly made for infantry use, sells for about $250, in contrast to $700 to $850 for a comparable Austrian or Swiss handgun.

Far more significant would be a decision to ban the domestic production of semiautomatics, a move that Clinton supports in principle but that might be politically impossible. Though weakened by recent defeats over gun-control measures in New Jersey and Virginia, the National Rifle Association would muster all its forces to prevent such an infringement.

Attorney General Reno, however, is confident that stricter gun control is possible. "The NRA doesn't particularly care for me," she told TIME last week, "But it's important for the NRA to understand what this stuff has done to America. I just think the American people are sick and fed up with what assault weapons have done. I can remember the first time I saw an assault weapon. It is deadly. It is a horrible thing. The American people have come to realize what these weapons are doing on our streets. They are saying, Enough is enough is enough."

As politically promising as the crime bill is for Clinton, it does carry some risk. If the legislation falters once again, Biden and Clinton may decide to detach the Brady bill and pass it separately. But some supporters of the whole crime bill want to keep Brady attached, as a lure for liberals to vote for the entire package. Given the popular support for some kind of serious action, Clinton cannot afford to let this bill crumble into unrecognizable pieces, another victim of partisan gridlock. That would be a crime the public would be slow to forgive.