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CURRENT STORIES


New gun initiative making an impact

by Jim Fisher

METRO EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- For more than two years, federal prosecutors have focused on getting illegal guns off the streets.

After a conference this week in Kansas City, Mo., it is readily apparent that the new initiative is working.

Nationwide, federal firearms prosecutions have increased by nearly 70 percent. Last year, the government filed more than 10,500 charges, the most ever. About 95 percent of those charged ultimately saw jail time.

At the same time, violent crimes are down to a level not seen since the early 1970s.

There is an effort under way to compile local data to see exactly what impact Project Safe Homes has had in northern West Virginia, said Thomas Johnston, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District.

While that research is not yet complete, Johnston did say that prosecutions here are up, just as they are on the federal level.

Project Safe Homes is the local initiative of Project Safe Neighborhoods, created by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001.

While the overall goal is to reduce illegal guns, Project Safe Homes is focusing on domestic violence and convicted felons possessing guns.

Anyone convicted of domestic violence cannot own or possess a weapon, period. No exceptions.

"The fact that people can lose their guns is absolutely a deterrent," said Harrison Chief Deputy Albert Marano. "A lot of defendants are concerned about losing their guns."

That concern is something that Johnston wants. Part of the initiative is to increase public awareness, he said. A public outreach campaign began last fall that includes billboards and public service announcements.

"One of the strong points of Project Safe Neighborhoods, each U.S. attorney has the responsibility and the flexibility to tailor the program to our own district's needs," Johnston said.

Some areas have more problems with juveniles possessing weapons, while others have a strong illegal weapon trade.

West Virginia has a problem with domestic violence, Johnston said.

"Domestic violence advocates tell us we have had an impact simply by weighing in on the issue," he said. "West Virginia unfortunately is among the nation's leaders in domestic violence. That's one statistic I'd like to see change."

Johnston's office works very closely with local law enforcement, including Harrison County Prosecutor Joe Shaffer's office.

Shaffer said every case of a felon possessing a weapon is referred to the U.S. Attorney "because of the stiffer penalties in the federal system.

"I think it's a great program," Shaffer said. "It's just an issue of letting people know and making the public aware that if you know an individual with a felony, they're not supposed to be in possession of firearms."

Metro Editor Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com