November 20, 2003

November 20, 2003 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Upholding the Law

Are you safer today than you were two years ago? Even with the terrorist threat, the answer is a resounding "Yes" for Americans-all around the country, regardless of income, race, ethnicity or gender.

Good news abounds. New data from the Justice Department show the crime rate today is at a 30-year low. Sexual assaults are down 25 percent from two years ago. Attempted theft is down 22 percent. Robberies are down 27 percent.

What's behind this nationwide outbreak of safety? Well, the crime rate is dropping because the government is using effective tools to track and catch lawbreakers, then enforcing tough penalties against them. It seems simple, but it's true: "crime is prevented when career criminals are taken off the streets," as Attorney General John Ashcroft recently observed.

One key program is "Project Safe Neighborhoods," introduced shortly after President Bush took office. It aims to unite local, state and federal law enforcement officials in the battle against illegal guns. The numbers prove it's working.

In just two years, federal gun prosecutions are up 36 percent, and 93 percent of those convicted criminals have been sentenced to prison. This explains why gun crimes are down an amazing 32 percent: The criminals who would be using illegal guns are being caught, locked up and sent away. And all this is being done without infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.

Another important factor is the much-maligned Patriot Act.

The Sept. 11 attacks exposed serious weaknesses in our approach to fighting terrorism. Fortunately, Congress acted quickly and overwhelmingly to correct some of the problems by passing the Patriot Act. For example, law enforcement officials now have the same authority-under strict judicial oversight-to conduct covert surveillance of suspected terrorists that they have long been able to use with suspected gangsters.

With help from the Patriot Act, federal officials have broken up terrorist cells in five states and brought criminal charges against 284 suspected terrorists. More than half of those have already pled guilty-including "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and American Taliban member John Walker Lindh.

But while the Patriot Act has allowed us to crack down on terrorists, it has proven to be no threat to the civil liberties the rest of us enjoy. Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told a congressional hearing: "I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me." Feinstein also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union-a frequent critic of the act-to see if they had any examples of violations. "They had none," she reported.

Finally, crime is down because the federal government is working with local officials to get citizens involved. In just one year, the number of National Neighborhood Watch programs has almost doubled. That means more Americans than ever are watching for suspicious activity where they live and work. They're reporting suspected crimes instead of ignoring them, enabling police to arrest wrongdoers before a single incident turns into a crime spree.

Despite the pervasive good news on the crime front, the U.S. Attorney General must feel like a man under siege. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have taken shots at him. For example, Howard Dean declared, "John Ashcroft is not a patriot. John Ashcroft is a descendant of Joe McCarthy." Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., added: "The last thing we need to do is turn our rights, our freedom and our liberties over to John Ashcroft."

Listening to that, primary voters could be forgiven if they've started to think Ashcroft is Public Enemy #1. But the fact is, there are fewer public enemies on the streets today because the initiatives championed and used by Ashcroft are working so well.

Many lawbreakers have already been caught and incarcerated. The rest live in fear they'll be next. And that's good news for law-abiding citizens everywhere.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office