Mr. Clinton told reporters at the White House that his administration is seeking extra money from Congress to bolster enforcement, but also has tried to leave gun cases with local, rather than federal, prosecutors.
"I think what we've tried to do is the right course," the president said. He added that, "It's truly ironic that the NRA is now criticizing us for not throwing everybody in jail that fails a Brady background check. If it had been up to them, we wouldn't be doing these background checks."
Mr. Clinton declined to address NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre's comment that his hands have the blood of murdered basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong on them.
"Getting into a personal spat with Mr. LaPierre about tactics I don't think any American appreciates, and any American can see through, is not worth doing," he said.
However, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart had harsh words for LaPierre, calling his remarks, "sick rhetoric."
"Just when you think a human being couldn't go any lower, Wayne LaPierre and the NRA found a way,"Lockhart said Thursday morning. "This kind of sick rhetoric should stop."
Attorney General Janet Reno added, "I have heard an awful lot in the last seven years, but that's about the worst rhetoric that I have heard."
Byrdsong, a former Northwestern University basketball coach, was shot to death last summer in a two-state shooting spree in which one other person died and nine were wounded. Authorities determined later that the white supremacist responsible for the shootings had failed a Brady law background check but had not been arrested.
Lockhart said federal officials were not aware of the killer's background check until six days after Byrdsong's death, a fact he said LaPierre "knows full well."
On Wednesday night, LaPierre questioned whether President Clinton had "looked into the eyes of Ricky Byrdsong's family? Because that blood is on his hands."
The latest exchange of fire over the gun issue, came a day after gun-control advocates won a rare though symbolic victory in Congress. The House, in a nonbinding 218-205 vote, urged House and Senate negotiators to meet within two weeks to work out a compromise on long-stalled gun legislation.
Reiterating his call for tougher gun laws, the president Wednesday also released the FBI's first annual report on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the computerized background-check system created under the Brady Law and in place nationwide since December of 1998.
The new report shows that in its first year of operation, in whih 10 million checks were run, the NICS stopped 179,000 felons, fugitives, domestic abusers, and other prohibited persons from buying guns.
Through NICS, the FBI and its state and local law enforcement partners performed instant searches of over 35 million records to help prevent the sale of guns to prohibited buyers.
Among the key findings of the report:
- Most checks are completed within seconds. During the first year of NICS, 72 percent of checks were completed within 30 seconds, and 95 percent were completed within two hours. In the remaining cases, there is a good reason for additional time: an individual whose check takes more than 24 hours is almost 20 times more likely than the average gun buyer to be a felon or other prohibited purchaser.
- The majority of sales blocked were to felons and other criminals. Of sales denied by the FBI, 71 percent were to felons, 15 percent to individuals with domestic violence misdemeanors or under restraining orders, and 4 percent to persons with histories of drug abuse.
- NICS checks help law enforcement apprehend fugitives. The report shows that 2,400 of those prevented from buying guns were also identified to federal, state and local law enforcement agenciesleading to the apprehension of dangerous fugitives from justice.
- Cutting time for law enforcement checks means more criminals get guns. The report shows that if the FBI were given only 24 hours to complete all background checks, instead of up to three business days as under current law, nearly 34,000 prohibited purchasersmore than 38 percent of the FBI denialswould have received guns since the NICS first took effect.
The money would also expand ATF's crime gun-tracing and ballistics testing program and help communities replicate successful gun violence reduction programs like Richmond, Va.'s Project Exile and Boston's Operation Ceasefire.
Thursday's war of words is the latest in a series of nasty exchanges between the president and the gun lobby that began Sunday with a new NRA television commercial campaign. NRA president Charlton Heston implies in one of the ads that Mr. Clinton lied when he characterized the NRA as stubbornly resistant to reasonable gun-control laws.
Heston charges that it was not the NRA, but the president who blocked tougher gun laws, and he all but calls the president a liar.
"Mr. Clinton, when what you say is wrong, it's a mistake. When you know it's wrong, it's a lie. Remember?" says Heston.