Want less gun violence? Cough up the cash

Guns on display in a gun shop
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Guns on display in a gun shop

It's a vast understatement to say that the U.S. is at a political impasse when it comes to gun violence. And like all good impasses, the reasons for it are multiplying rather than shrinking every day. But it boils down to a very old and stubborn argument. Pro-gun control forces insist on new laws and bans to stop gun violence while their opponents say those new laws and bans will only end up punishing and endangering law-abiding gun owners. Politically, this has been an unbridgeable divide for going on 40 years. And no amount of sit-ins, NRA rallies, mass shootings, accidental shootings, or incidents where armed citizens stopped crimes in their tracks is going to break it.

The crux of the problem revolves around legislation. As long as Democrats insist that new gun laws and bans are the only way to stop or slow gun violence, the Republicans and at least a plurality of the American people will stand in their way. The reasons are many, but one of the biggest problems with the new legislation approach is the fact that most violent gun crimes in America, (with some notable exceptions), are committed by people in geographical locations heavily connected to the Democratic Party. That's an image problem the Democrats can't really shake. And as "Dilbert" creator and blogger Scott Adams wrote last week, that leaves many non-Democrats who own guns looking at newly proposed gun laws by Democrats as essentially saying to them: "put down your guns… so we can shoot you!" That approach simply isn't going to work even though most Republican gun owners live far from the Democratic Party strongholds like Chicago where so much gun violence is occurring.

But here's the funny thing, (in a tragically laughable way of course): we already know how to reduce gun violence and gun crimes because we've already done it before and it wasn't even all that long ago. That's right, we actually solved the issue of rising gun violence in America in the mid-1990's and again in the early 2000's by doing something really radical. We came up with the cash necessary to enforce the law better.

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Now Republicans often get off too easy with their base of voters by talking the talk about enforcing existing gun laws and leaving it at that. While it's technically true that there are already enough gun laws on the books to put the hammer down on gun violence, most Republicans know all too well that law enforcement all over the country needs a lot more funding and other tools to enforce those laws better. And that became clear during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations when new funding programs to cut down on gun violence were instituted and they worked.

I'll start with the Clinton years and remind everyone that it wasn't the Brady Bill or the Assault Weapons ban that made the real difference. It was the increased funding to police departments from his 1994 crime bill that showed real progress. I was on the White House lawn that day in October, 1994 when President Clinton was joined by an army of police chiefs and mayors to announce the $200 million being released to put 100,000 more cops on the streets. It's not clear just how close the Clinton Administration came to reaching that exact 100,000 number, but the message the funding sent had almost as much of an effect as whatever number of new cops actually hit the streets. The message was that police weren't the problem, which just a couple years after the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots wasn't such an easy thing for any Democrat to say. And President Clinton was never shy about trumpeting the falling crime statistics during his presidency. He and Hillary Clinton are trying to backtrack on that a bit now as the "Black Lives Matter" movement has started a new anti-cop sentiment in the new Democratic Party base. But there's really no denying that the increased Clinton administration funding for policing and incarceration made a difference. No matter how much the hard Left is demonizing it now.

Clinton's successor, President George W. Bush, saw similar successes with boosted funding for the FBI to go after gun runners with the "Project SAFE" program aimed at prosecuting criminals who used guns. Project SAFE alone got more than $1.5 billion from the Bush administration. Violent crime fell sharply during the Bush years, even when compared the already falling crime numbers under President Clinton.

Under President Obama, violent crime has mostly remained at historic lows. But something strange has happened on his watch when it comes to prosecuting gun-using criminals: it's gone down. Federal prosecutors brought a total of 5,082 gun violation cases in 2013 recommended by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, compared with 8,752 prosecutions of ATF cases brought by the Justice Department in 2004 under President Bush according to the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. There may be ideological reasons for this decline, as many of President Obama's critics insist the White House is more interested in scoring political points by harassing law abiding gun owners. But there's no denying that maintaining the high number of gun arrests and prosecutions is expensive, and the money available for that kind of law enforcement has indeed become more scarce because of budgetary constraints brought on by the Republican Congress. The White House may be blaming the GOP a little too much for the gun prosecution decline, but it does have a solid point when it points out financial logjams like the Sequester. Both the Clinton crime initiatives and the Bush crackdown on illegal guns cost money, big money. And Republicans haven't been so forthcoming with budgetary cash lately.

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That leaves us with a unique bipartisan "put your money where your mouth is" moment when it comes to guns. The Democrats, if they really want to slow gun violence in this country, need to put their money where their mouths are and support renewed efforts to enforce existing gun laws like Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush did in the recent past. Republicans, if they really want to prove they believe enforcing the existing gun laws is all we need to do, need to put their money where their mouths are and get proactive about offering more funding for that enforcement up front.

So far, both sides just aren't stepping up to the plate. So we're stuck with stunts like sit-ins and scare tactics about "gun grabbing." But the presidential candidate who refocuses the gun debate towards a push for more funding would very likely enjoy a significant boost in the polls. The question is: which candidate is smart enough to simply promote what we already know works?

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.