Clinton gets tough as murder rate rises

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WHILE Bill Clinton was flexing his muscles on the 'law and order' issue, murders in the United States rose by 3 per cent last year to 24,500, according to the latest FBI figures.

Particularly on the increase are killings in medium-sized cities such as Baltimore, New Orleans and Memphis. Other types of violent crime fell but the homicide rate largely determines the level of public anxiety because of extensive television coverage.

The most dangerous murder city is Gary, Indiana, where 105 people were killed last year. On a per capita basis this put Gary ahead of Washington DC, the nation's leader in 1989-91, which had 494 homicides in 1993.

The overall crime rate continues to decline as it has done since 1981. Violent crimes were down by 1 per cent and crimes against property, which make up 87 per cent of the total, fell by 3 per cent. But it is mass killings by deranged gunmen - such as the Long Island Railroad massacre - which does most to frighten Joe Public.

These latest FBI figures come at a time when the White House is attempting to take the 'law and order' issue away from the Republicans by trying to pressure Congress into voting this week for a ban on 19 types of assault weapon currently on sale.

The number of people killed by gunshot wounds is going up because of the increased availability of semi-automatic weapons. On Saturday, President Clinton wrote an open letter to hunters asking for their help in outlawing firearms 'designed for the battlefield'.

The administration says it is still 15 votes short of what it needs to pass a bill in the House of Representatives that would ban assault guns and detachable magazines with more than 10 rounds.

Since Richard Nixon, the Republicans have benefited from their image as the party tough on 'law and order' issues. Over the last year President Clinton - by calling for harsh prison sentences and more police - has persuaded 41 per cent of voters that Democrats handle crime problems best against 37 per cent who prefer the Republicans, according to a USA Today/Gallup/ CNN poll. Some 44 per cent of Americans think crime is the most important issue facing the country.

Americans are 15 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than Europeans, but the people most at risk are young black males. In practice, white suburbs are largely safe. In New Orleans where 1,500 people have been murdered in the past five years, only 38 were white.

The same is true of Washington. In the US as a whole, 11,175 blacks and 10,647 whites were murdered in 1992 although blacks are only 12 per cent of the population.

The increase in the number of killings since the mid-Eighties is attributable to two developments: the spread of cheap crack cocaine, which expanded the drug market, and the shift towards more lethal weapons that inflict fatal wounds.

There were more turf wars to control the crack trade, and disputes between retailers and wholesalers are invariably settled with guns.

The background to the increase in the murder rate has been the decline in social conditions in black ghettoes. However Mr Clinton has focused on stealing Republican political clothing by supporting tougher punishment such as the 'Three Strikes and You're Out' law which would mandate life sentences for anybody convicted for three felonies. The US already has 1.4 million people in jail, which is more than China.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr Clinton promised to expand the availability of drug treatment to anybody who needs it. His director of drug policy, Lee Brown, now says that this will not happen over the next five years.

Mr Clinton has thrown his weight behind gun control but with 211 million firearms available - more than enough to arm every adult - even a rigorous ban on sales will be slow to have an impact.