U.S. President Joe Biden, accompanied by Attorney General Merrick Garland, holds remarks at the White House in Washington on June 23, 2021 after a round table discussion with advisers on steps to reduce gun violence in the U.S.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Wednesday outlined several measures his administration is taking to curb the recent surge in violent crime and gun violence, ahead of a summer that experts fear could be particularly deadly.
“Crime increases historically over the course of the summer. And if we get out of this pandemic with the country reopening, the traditional summer surge could be even more pronounced than normal, ”Biden said at the White House on Wednesday afternoon.
In response to the surge in gun crime, Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland announced stricter enforcement guidelines for state gun control laws, as well as new guidelines designed to help cities and states make better use of federal Covid tools to combat gun violence. also by hiring police officers.
According to White House data, homicides were up 30% year over year in 2020, an increase that shows no sign of subsiding.
In the first quarter of this year, the nationwide kill rate was 24% higher than the same period in 2020 and 49% higher than two years ago.
Biden and Garland also held a meeting Wednesday with Baltimore and Miami mayors, Baton Rouge, LA police chief, and several other stakeholders to discuss crime prevention.
Across the country, mayors and police chiefs are struggling to explain what is behind the rise in mass shootings, murders and other violent crimes.
Experts point to a perfect storm of factors that collided during the pandemic. These include a surge in private arms sales, widespread unemployment and Covid jobs that stay at home, leaving people trapped and with little to do.
At the same time, protests against the police killing of blacks may have diverted police resources from traditional policing and undermined public confidence in the prosecution.
However, many of the factors believed to have contributed to the rise in violent crime are difficult to quantify.
And since policing is typically highly localized in America, Biden's options at the federal level are limited.
Shift ATF priorities
Biden and Garland announced that the Justice Department will adopt a zero-tolerance policy from Wednesday for state-licensed arms dealers who violate arms sales laws.
Instead of issuing warnings, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will now try to revoke dealer licenses if the first violations occur.
"If you deliberately sell a gun to someone who is prohibited from possession, if you deliberately fail to do a background check, if you deliberately forge a record, if you deliberately fail to cooperate with the tracking requests or inspections, my message to you is: & # 39 "We'll find you and get your license to sell guns," "said Biden.
"We will make sure that you cannot sell death and chaos on our streets," he added. "It's an outrage. It has to end and we will end it."
Biden also announced the dispatch of five new federal strike troops, led by the ATF, to monitor and intercept arms smuggling along several major arms trade corridors between major cities.
Changes to the ATF could help restore teeth to the agency's enforcement arm, which perished under a previous policy that prioritized compliance over punishment.
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American rescue plan funds
In addition to strengthening federal gun legislation, Biden drew a straight line from the pandemic to the rise in gun violence on Wednesday.
By that name, it means efforts to combat the increase in gun violence are a legitimate use of the $ 350 billion state and local pandemic relief funds approved by Congress this spring.
According to the Treasury Department's updated guidance released Wednesday, American Rescue Plan funds can be used to hire more police officers, pay overtime, purchase equipment, and fund additional “enforcement efforts” to combat the rise in gun violence .
However, there are some conditions. The first is that the funds must be used to advance "community policing strategies" as defined by the Justice Department. Likewise, the funds cannot be used to recruit police forces above their pre-pandemic level.
While the funds are tightly tailored to community policing, the idea that federal aid money will be used to hire more police officers could be a sensitive issue among Democrats.
Since the 2020 assassination of George Floyd and subsequent protests against racial justice, some members of the Democratic Party's left flank have supported a movement to reduce the size and scope of the police force and replace law enforcement officers with social services and crisis advisors.
From protesters chanting the phrase, dubbed the "Defund the Police" movement, the urge to radically change policing in America has divided parts of the Democratic Party.
Biden turned against the Defund the Police movement during his 2020 presidential campaign, and Democratic lawmakers standing for election in 2022 have largely avoided using the term.
Instead, Biden suggests major public investments in social services, psychological counseling, and community violence interventions alongside law enforcement.
On Wednesday, Biden highlighted some of those investments along with the tougher enforcement pieces of his crime prevention plan.
For example, the Department of Labor recently announced a $ 85.5 million grant to help formerly incarcerated adults and young people find work, shelter and support with reintegration into society.
The president also encouraged cities and states to use ARP funding for summer job programs for young people and for education enrichment programs.
Roadblocks in Congress
However, several key elements of the Biden administration's strategy are beyond the control of the president as they are required by Congress.
Biden argued on Wednesday that gun safety was a bipartisan issue.
"We now have the opportunity to come together as Democrats and Republicans, as fellow Americans, to fulfill the government's primary responsibility in our democracy and to protect one another," said Biden.
"That means Congress will pass sensible initiatives on gun violence. Background checks. Prohibition of offensive weapons. Liability for gun manufacturers. The Violence Against Women Act."
Of course, Biden knows better than most people that gun safety is hardly ever a bipartisan issue. On the contrary, decades of lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other groups have made gun control one of the most controversial issues in American civil life.
But while legislation has stalled for the time being, there is one possible bright spot: the confirmation of Biden's candidate to lead the ATF, David Chipman.
Chipman is a retired ATF agent and arms trade expert. But its track record of supporting expanded firearms restrictions has turned its endorsement into a strong political struggle.
With the Senate divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Biden must vote each Democrat to endorse Chipman so Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the casting vote.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, two moderate Democrats hadn't signed up to support Chipman's endorsement: West Virginia's Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema.
Biden's success or failure in convincing Manchin and Sinema to validate Chipman is being closely watched by some gun control advocates, who see this as an important test of the president's commitment to the broader gun safety agenda.