ANY questions about the Bush administration's willingness to act on drugs and crime were dispelled this week when William Bennett took two very positive steps. Both indicate he'll be a drug czar with clout, even if he's not always at the Cabinet table. The temporary halt to the import of assault rifles is largely symbolic, since crooks will always find a way to carry on their turf wars. But symbols are important, and this one shows that the Bush administration doesn't buy the National Rifle Association's lame arguments against banning weapons designed only to kill large numbers of people. And symbol will become substance if NRA member George Bush sees the light on comprehensive federal gun control, particularly permanent restrictions on combat-type weapons and a mandatory waiting period and background check for all gun purchases.
Important as it is, gun control is only part of the solution. There must also be greater efforts to apprehend, prosecute, and punish the suppliers of illegal drugs. Mr. Bennett's other move - designating the District of Columbia a ``high-intensity drug trafficking area'' and therefore eligible for federal drug-fighting resources - is most welcome in this regard.
Washington has become the ``murder capital of the US'' (more than twice the rate of New York) with 80 percent of its homicides drug-related. Mayor Marion Barry says he's ``working desperately'' at a problem that needs more federal attention. But the fact is he's failed to show the necessary leadership. That a grand jury is probing Mr. Barry's own ties to a drug dealer hasn't helped, to say the least.
Enter the drug czar with a bigger arsenal at his disposal and a President who appears to give him full backing. In Bennett's kit are the power to direct more funds to hire Washington police officers, assign more federal prosecutors and judges to the district, provide federal prison slots to city prisoners, and beef up drug treatment efforts there.
The real proof of the Bush administration's commitment to fighting drugs will come with the follow-through. So far, the signals are good.