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The nation's crime problem is not guns. The problem, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is liberals unwilling to hold criminals responsible for their actions.

"Many of these same individuals do not hold criminals accountable for their actions because they do not believe in the responsibility and accountability that comes with freedom," Hatch said, taking specific aim at fellow members of Congress. "These people, who have no faith in individual responsibility, want to take away our freedom."Hatch's comments came Saturday night during a banquet address to more than 1,000 members of the National Rifle Association, who gathered in Salt Lake City this week for their annual convention.

While Hatch said the right of private citizens to keep and bear arms is constitutionally protected by the Second Amendment, it has come under increasing and relentless attacks by gun-control advocates. While many have proclaimed the demise of the NRA, the organization remains one of the most politically powerful groups on Capitol Hill.

"There is no opportunity to let our guard down, considering that our entire constitutional system depends on our vigilance," Hatch warned.

The origins of the Second Amendment, Hatch noted, are found deep in English history, centuries before the American Revolution. From the fifth century on, Saxon kings required landowners to keep, carry and maintain their own weapons in the event of foreign invasion or domestic insurrection.

Even after the Normans conquered England in 1066, the practice of requiring private individuals to maintain their own weapons continued. When the oppressive King John attempted to disarm the populace, the noblemen rebelled, resulting in the Magna Carta of 1215 A.D.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 specifically stated that Englishmen "may have arms for their defense suitable to their condition."

It was a legacy not lost on the Founding Fathers of the United States, he said. "James Madison and other members of the first Congress knew that someday, some of their successors, people like my colleagues Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum, were bound to try to disarm the American people," Hatch said.

Hatch, an NRA member who has long been a champion of the right of private citizens to keep and bear arms, said the Second Amendment stands for more than the right to own guns. "It stands for the citizenry's right to prevent governmental tyranny," he said.

While citing numerous NRA victories - causes for which he fought in the Senate - Hatch reminded the NRA faithful of a stinging defeat - an amendment banning certain assault weapons - as a key reason for continued vigilance and political involvement on the part of the NRA.

The answer, Hatch said, is not passing gun-control legislation that affects "decent Americans who abide by the rules of the land." Rather, "what we need is more vigorous crime-control laws. My goal is not to restrict law-abiding Americans, but to keep violent criminals behind bars and away from law-abiding Americans. We need more prisons. We need to do away with plea-bargaining for violent criminals. We need mandated penalties for criminals using firearms in violent crimes."

"And," he added, "we need Habeus Corpus reform. There is no use in having capital punishment if criminals can appeal their cases for 10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years. Enough is enough. The answer is not gun reform but crime reform."

Hatch also pledged support for sport hunting as one of America's most venerable rights and to fight "the efforts of liberals to impose obstacles to hunting. In England, it freed peasants from the feudal system, and it has provided a livelihood for millions over the centuries."

For his support of gun-owner rights, the NRA presented Hatch with a handmade Kentucky flintlock rifle.