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Johnnie puts guns on the spot

Cochran stars in ad blitz aimed at illegal weapons

Thursday, October 12, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The face is hidden in shadow but the voice is familiar.

"If the arresting officers don't read you your Miranda rights, a good attorney should get you off."

You've heard this guy before -- somewhere.

"If the prosecution can't find a credible witness or build a convincing case, a good attorney should get you off."

Isn't that...?

"But if you've got a prior felony and you're caught with a gun," the voice says, "not even I can get you off."

And Johnnie Cochran, the flamboyant attorney many Americans think got O.J. Simpson off, emerges from the darkness.

It's an arresting TV commercial, so to speak, and soon it will be airing throughout Western Pennsylvania as part of a media blitz promoting Operation Target, a federal, state and local program to clear illegal guns from the streets.

At a news conference scheduled for this morning, Mayor Tom Murphy, representatives from the U.S. attorney's office and other local officials will kick off a campaign featuring billboards and TV and radio spots designed to spread the message that convicted felons caught with guns face five years in federal prison with no parole.

The campaign, created by the Downtown advertising firm Droz and Associates, is similar to initiatives in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee and other cities.

It's expected to cost about $1 million in private and public funds.

To get things started, the city paid Droz, a 14-employee outfit on Ninth Street that often does ads for nonprofit organizations, $22,000 in seed money with hopes that private donors would come forward as the campaign gains momentum, as has happened elsewhere.

In addition, the U.S. attorney's office appropriated $60,000 from its litigation fund surplus.

Cochran, for his part, doesn't get a dime. Recruited by a Wisconsin senator, he provided his services for free as part of Milwaukee's Operation Ceasefire campaign, which started in July.

Since then, the TV commercial has been passed around to other cities.

At their most basic level, the ads are designed to intimidate the relatively small group of violent young men who aren't allowed to carry guns.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 150 to 200 individuals are responsible for the bulk of the shootings in the Pittsburgh region. Some 20 billboards throughout the city will warn them and anyone else with a criminal record: "Use a gun and you're done."

"This is a full-court press," said Dan Droz, president of the ad agency. "It's hard to know what effect this will have on actual gun crime. But this goes hand in hand with the prosecution of gun criminals. The teeth of the program is the actual prosecutions."

Since Operation Target began a year ago today, the U.S. attorney's office has prosecuted 31 defendants for carrying illegal guns, making straw purchases or trafficking in illegal weapons.

Unlike other gun programs, such as the original Project Exile in Virginia, Operation Target does not seek federal indictments and sentences in every gun case, an approach that flooded federal court in Richmond.

Instead, U.S. Attorney Harry Litman's office works with the Allegheny County district attorney's office to determine which staff should handle each gun offense. The worst offenders often end up in federal court, where gun sentences are usually stiffer than those handed down in the state system.

In addition, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, local police and the U.S. attorney's office work with legitimate firearms dealers to crack down on straw purchases, which some studies have shown are the source of up to 75 percent of guns used in crimes.

Litman has taken the gun crusade personally.

Earlier this year, he prosecuted Ben "The Gun Man" Dickerson, 29, of Homewood, on charges of buying 10 guns at shops and then illegally selling them to criminals.

One of those guns was used in a 1997 homicide in Penn Hills. Convicted in May, Dickerson is serving a 41-month sentence.

It was the first time in years that a U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh tried a case himself, but Litman said it was important because Dickerson was a known street dealer and one of the first straw purchasers indicted under Operation Target.

Operation Target and its counterparts across the nation are unusual in that they have received support from both the National Rifle Association and gun-control advocates.

The programs have been credited with being partially responsible for the drop in homicides in many American cities, including Richmond.

A clever Johnnie Cochran spot alone might not influence the kind of hard-core street criminals Litman calls "gun-toting thugs," but he said the ads are just part of a larger strategy to raise community awareness of the consequences of carrying, buying or selling illegal guns.

The program will eventually involve the distribution of fliers in schools and prisons, promotions at Giant Eagle stores and possibly billboards on Port Authority buses.

"The idea is to get the word out," Litman said.

"It will really hit home that it's just not worth it [to carry a gun]. We still think a rational approach is best. Some won't listen, and it will be necessary for us to follow through with a prosecution. If a billboard doesn't work, seeing your friend in jail will."

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