Clinton hits back at gun culture: The murder rate is steady, but spectacular killings have taken crime to the top of the political agenda

IN Washington a one-year-old child was burnt to death when a man tried to kill her babysitter, who had seen him rob and shoot a cab driver, by lobbing a petrol bomb into the room where she was sitting. In New York Amy Federici, shot through the head on board the Long Island Rail Road last week, became the sixth person to die as the result of a shooting spree by a single gunman.

Spectacular murders have moved violent crime to the top of the political agenda. President Bill Clinton last week told a meeting of mayors and police chiefs that violence was 'tearing the heart out of our country'. A survey of 1,600 inner-city youths shows that one in five regularly carried a gun. One schoolboy, asked by researchers what calibre of weapon he carried, pulled his gun 'from his jacket to examine it before responding'.

It is not that the crime rate is increasing. The number of murders in the US is steady at 24,000. But this year has seen a spate of crimes of exceptional violence, such as the massacre on the Long Island Rail Road, affecting white neighbourhoods outside black ghettos. Americans in the most placid suburbs feel threatened.

With the passage of the Brady bill, the first measure of gun control to be passed by Congress since 1968, the Clinton administration believes the National Rifle Association is weakening. In the face of popular anger, Republican senators did not dare to maintain their filibuster of the bill. Janet Reno, the Attorney-General, says: 'It should be at least as hard to get a licence to get a gun as it is to drive.'

The concern is real, but President Clinton's enthusiasm for gun control is also fuelled by the knowledge that it is a good way for the Democrats to dish the Republicans by undermining their tough- on-crime image. He is also politically safe from criticism by black leaders such as Jesse Jackson because in recent weeks they, too, are saying that blacks are the main victims of violence. Of the 453 people murdered in Washington last year only 12 were white.

A young black male is seven times more likely to be murdered than his white equivalent. Under Republican administrations in the Eighties, when the prison population soared to 1.2 million, blacks saw White House promises to do something about crime as thinly coded attacks on the black community as a whole. A theme of Mr Jackson's recent speeches is that more blacks are now being murdered by other blacks than were ever killed by white lynch mobs.

Although the murder rate is not going up, the pattern of violence is changing, according to the crime figures for the first half of this year. The most dangerous cities, increasingly, are medium-sized ones with a population of less than one million, such as New Orleans, Washington, St Louis and Baltimore, and not the big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Police say this is because large-scale drug operations are moving out of the big metropolitan areas into neighbouring towns and cities.

Dennis Martin, the president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, says: 'They're going where the money is: the places where they can get top dollar for their drugs, where the police are a little less sophisticated and the competition isn't as rough.' It was the development of crack cocaine in the mid-Eighties that fuelled the growth of heavily armed gangs. This in turn has produced a culture of violence in black neighbourhoods where guns are routinely used to settle disputes.

In Philadelphia last week, for instance, 16-year-old Kevin Graham was lying on the floor of a friend's house playing a video game when an argument started and another boy, aged 17, took out his pistol and shot Graham in the back of the head. Elsewhere in the city on the same day six other people were murdered, all but one shot with a handgun.

There are other signs that violence and crime are becoming a political priority. As pressure on politicians and police goes up the job security of police chiefs has dropped.