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Public Papers - 1989 - May

Remarks at the National Peace Officers' Memorial Day Ceremony

1989-05-15

Thank you, Suzy. If it doesn't start clearing up, we're issuing snorkels to everybody out there. [Laughter] Thank you, Suzy Sawyer, and of course, to Dewey Stokes and Craig Floyd, my respects as well. You have great leadership, and I salute them. I want to say how pleased I am that the Secretary of the Treasury is with me, Nick Brady; our Attorney General, the able Dick Thornburgh; and our drug czar, Secretary Bill Bennett. The fact that we four are here is intentional. It sends the signal of our commitment and of our interest. And I know Members of Congress are here as well. I spotted my own Senator, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, and Senator Pete Wilson. But I'm going to be in trouble because I can't see over there -- who else is there. But I know many are sitting right over here, and we salute them. I see Senator Ford and others, and we're just delighted that they are here today.

Last fall a retired New York police lieutenant gave me badge number 14072, and I have it with me today -- the badge his son wore the day he was gunned down by a gang of cocaine cowards. Matt Byrne asked me to keep Eddie's badge as a ``reminder of all the brave police officers who put their lives on the line for us every single day.'' Matt, your son's badge, as I have told you, is kept in my desk at the Oval Office. And during the debate on gun-related violence that has raged in this country the past several months, neither it nor what it represents has ever been far from my mind. I've heard the many voices, the courageous and the compassionate, the wounded and the widowed, and I salute the survivors that are here today.

We gather today to respond to those voices and to honor the fallen by launching a national strategy, a partnership with America's cities and States, to take back the streets. It calls for a return to common sense. And it begins with a clear-eyed vision of the kind of problems we face, the kind of people we are, the kind of values that we hold, and the kind of nation we intend to bequeath to our children.

The problem is violent crime, and in particular, the blood that's been shed by increasingly sophisticated guns in the hands of a new class of criminals. Usually, but not always, the deaths are tied to a cycle of dollars and drugs and dependency. The principles are simple. My generation well remembers what some believe was FDR's finest speech: the ``Four Freedoms,'' an address to a joint session of the Congress. And the last, often forgotten, but arguably the most fundamental of those freedoms was simply this: freedom from fear. Our sworn duty to ``insure domestic Tranquility'' is as old as the Republic, placed in the Constitution's preamble even before the common defense and the general welfare. And so, when we ask what kind of society the American people deserve, our goal must be a nation in which law-abiding citizens are safe and feel safe.

To achieve this goal, people must be held accountable for their actions, and that's common sense. Most Americans are law-abiding, and most believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil. And whether it's the brutalization of a young runner in a park or terrorizing a young man onto a crowded highway, these are acts that cannot be excused or explained away. A commonsense approach to crime means that if we're going to affect people's behavior we must have a criminal justice system in which there is an expectation that if you commit a crime you will be caught; and if caught, you will be prosecuted; and if convicted, you will do time. For far too long, a privileged class of violent and repeat offenders have calculated that crime really does pay, that our criminal justice system is a crapshoot where the risks are worth the rewards. Well, it's time we change the odds and up the stakes enormously.

And we will lead the way. We'll do our part and then some. But no Federal effort can succeed without the full partnership of the cities and the States that you so nobly represent. Unfortunately, nowhere is your front-line role more evident than in the honor roll that will be read today: of 161 officers killed in the line of duty last year, 152 were State or local cops. And you are the first line of defense, and your respective governments have an obligation to adopt tough legislation and provide the resources -- in police, prosecutors, and prisons -- to fully back you up.

At the trial of Eddie Byrne's executioners, there was testimony that the hit was ordered from prison to send a message to the people behind the badge. And one witness said that they hoped to see the attack on the television news at Riker's Island. Well, today we have a message of our own: We're going to take back the streets by taking criminals off the streets. And it is an attack on all four fronts: new laws to punish them, new agents to arrest them, new prosecutors to convict them, and new prisons to hold them.

I am announcing today -- and there is no more fitting place than right here -- a comprehensive new offensive for combating violent crime -- for Eddie Byrne, for every officer we honor here today, and for America. The first front of this campaign, new laws, starts with the semiautomatic and so-called assault weapons that criminals have taken as their gun of choice. And again, common sense has to play an important part in this discussion. The fact of the matter is, nearly half the households in this country have guns, and guns are already out there. And the overwhelming majority are legitimately owned, for legitimate purposes. But in contrast to legitimate gun ownership is the chilling fact that something like 80 percent of all firearms used by felons are stolen or otherwise unlawfully obtained. Throughout our nation's history, the hard lesson we've learned is that criminals will get guns. And so, let me be very clear about our response: The right to own a gun is not a license to harm others.

And so, first I am calling on Congress today to do for dangerous firearms what it has wisely done for dangerous drugs: to double the mandatory minimum penalties for the use of semiautomatic weapons in crimes involving violence or drugs. And the math is simple. Anyone who uses a semiautomatic for crime, or so much as has one on them during a crime, will do an automatic 10 extra years in Federal prison -- no probation, no parole, no matter which judge they get.

And secondly, we just can't plea-bargain away the lives of your loved ones, the lives of our cops and kids. And I'm directing the Attorney General to advise America's prosecutors to end plea bargaining for violent Federal firearms offenses. Those who use guns will do time -- hard time.

And third, when a criminal carries a gun and someone dies, they must pay with their own lives. We are calling on Congress today to enact the steps necessary to implement the death penalty and to newly designate the use of a firearm as an aggravating factor for determining whether the death sentence should be imposed.

And I call on America's Governors to match this Federal initiative and propose these same three standards at home: mandatory time, no deals without cooperation, and the death penalty where appropriate. Your States owe it to those here today, and to the American people.

And fourth, 2 months ago, at my direction, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suspended the importation of certain so-called assault weapons. ATF is continuing its examination to determine which, if any, of those weapons are not acceptable under standards in existing law. And at the conclusion of this study, and after careful consideration, we will permanently ban any imports that don't measure up to these standards.

Recently the U.S. News cover story on guns summed up a related challenge: ``the difficulty in drafting laws that will separate assault weapons used in crime from semiautomatics frequently used for legitimate hunting and sport.'' And there is substantial controversy and debate on this point. You're all well aware of that. But one thing that we do know about these assault weapons is that they are invariably equipped with unjustifiably large magazines. The notorious AKS - 47, for example, comes with a magazine that pumps off 30 explosive bullets without reloading. And that is why -- fifth -- we stand on the steps here in front of the Capitol and ask its support for legislation prohibiting the importation, manufacture, sale, or transfer of these insidious gun magazines of more than 15 rounds.

The current debate was first sparked when an unstable gunman in Stockton, California, purchased an AKS - 47 over the counter and used it to lay waste to an elementary school playground. Patrick Edward Purdy had no business buying that gun. He was arrested on his first weapons charge before his 15th birthday. And by his fourth firearms arrest, Purdy had finally turned 18, and with it chalked up the first of two adult convictions. Although for violent and weapons offenses, both convictions were misdemeanors. Purdy crawled through the loophole that bars only felons from buying guns and got that deadly AKS - 47. That is outrageous.

And therefore, we also propose that Congress close this Purdy loophole and others like it that allow deadly weapons to fall into deadly hands. Again, that's just plain common sense. We must not allow deadly weapons to fall into deadly hands.

But we need to do more than just enact new laws. And in a recent movie about the L.A. gang wars, a woman shouts encouragement to a cop on patrol, telling him: ``You get them off the street.'' And he answers: ``Lady, we're trying.'' And the woman offers a four-word solution: ``You need more help.'' And believe me, we know it. Our police need more help. And I'm here today to tell you that we're prepared to match rhetoric with resources and call on our cities and States to do the same.

The second front, if you will, of our new offensive calls for increased manpower and a new strategy on guns, a strategy based on models of proven effectiveness. I have directed the Attorney General and the Treasury Secretary, working together with State and local enforcement, to launch a comprehensive, coordinated offensive against our nation's most violent criminals. And I am requesting funding for hiring 825 new Federal agents and staff -- 375 at ATF, 300 at the FBI, and 150 Deputy U.S. Marshals. Many of these hirings will permit experienced investigators from all three agencies to promptly combat violent crime in the field.

Of course, arresting these thugs doesn't help if we don't have the muscle to prosecute each criminal to the fullest extent of the law. And that's why the third front of this campaign calls for Congress to back up these new troops with 1,600 new prosecutors and staff. And now, there probably isn't a police officer here who hasn't seen a case where a dangerous felon -- properly arrested, fully prosecuted, and sentenced to the maximum -- walked out of jail early, sometimes years early, because prisons are bursting at the seams. That is not right.

Part of our commonsense approach is a simple recognition that it doesn't do any good to provide new Federal agents, new assistant U.S. Attorneys, and new laws with long-term penalties if we don't have the prison cells to keep criminals where they belong. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And so, as the fourth front in this comprehensive effort, I am calling on the Congress to authorize an additional billion, over and above the 0 million already slated for 1990, for Federal prison construction. These 24,000 new beds will boost Federal prison capacity by nearly 80 percent.

Not since Lincoln has a President stood in front of the Capitol and been just a few miles from the front lines of a war. Never was the toll more visible than in the faces of the brave men and women, the families, gathered here today. And when I first stood here as President, over there, only moments after taking the oath of office, I made a promise: ``This scourge will stop.'' And that's a promise that we intend to keep.

Ladies and gentlemen, I offer my condolences for your fallen loved ones and for your fellow officers. And I salute your commitment, and I salute your courage, and as a citizen -- grateful for the protection you have provided for me and my family and my fellow countrymen -- I thank you, and I wish you Godspeed. Thank you all, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 12:29 p.m. at the West Front of the Capitol. In his opening remarks, he referred to Suzy Sawyer, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police Ladies Auxiliary; Dewey Stokes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police; and Craig Floyd, president of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

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