WASHINGTON — As cities nationwide grapple with soaring gun violence, President Joe Biden is launching a full-scale government effort Wednesday he hopes will reverse the troubling trend.
In a White House speech, Biden will announce a crime prevention strategy that includes establishing a “zero tolerance policy” for rogue gun dealers and steps to stop the illegal trafficking of firearms, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The president’s push comes as he’s been unable to gain Republican support in Congress to pass sweeping gun control legislation. Republicans plan to seize on the crime surge to attack Democrats in their bid to take back control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.
Gun deaths in 2021 are up 21% over last year. Public safety experts fear gun violence will get even worse this summer, when it historically spikes with the arrival of warm weather. The start of summer coincides with relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in most states that have reopened aspects of American life after months of shutdowns.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s strategy is in response to gun violence that started increasing five years ago, accelerating further over the past 18 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some cities have reported spikes in other forms of violence, Psaki pointed to guns as the most serious threat. Burglary, larceny and drug offense rates nationally were each down over the first four months of 2021 from last year.
“We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and the use of guns,” Psaki said at Tuesday’s White House press briefing.
Biden to push COVID rescue funds for police hiring
Biden’s plan includes a new Justice Department policy that will allow the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke federal licenses of gun dealers the first time they violate federal law. Violations could include selling firearms to a prohibited buyer, failing to run required background checks or falsifying firearm transaction forms or other records.
A USA TODAY/The Trace investigation this month found that ATF inspectors routinely document violations at shops around the country, only to be overruled by higher authorities to issue warning letters instead of revoking licenses. Biden is also calling for additional federal funds to hire more ATF inspectors and agents.
The Justice Department plans to target the illegal flow of firearms across state lines through the creation of five new firearms strike forces. Authorities will coordinate with the ATF and cities and states to crack down on significant gun trafficking corridors that have diverted guns into New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Bay area and Washington D.C.
Other parts of Biden’s strategy include:
► The Treasury Department will “highlight” that cities and states can use their portions of $350 billion in direct aid from Biden’s COVID-19 rescue plan, approved by Congress in March, on hiring police officers and other law enforcement officials, prosecuting gun traffickers and new technology to respond to gun violence.
►Biden will unveil a new partnership with 15 cities to expand community violence intervention programs with federal funds and private dollars from philanthropic organizations. Biden proposed $5 billion for such programs in his infrastructure and jobs plan.
►The White House will work to expand summer employment, programming and other opportunities for youth and young adults. Biden’s Department of Labor this month awarded $89 million through the federal YouthBuild program for pre-apprenticeships for people 16 to 24 years old.
►The Biden administration also identified steps to help formerly incarcerated individuals to enter the workforce. That includes an $85.5 million Labor Department grant to improve access to jobs in 28 communities and evaluating potential barriers preventing the formerly incarcerated from getting hired by the federal government.
Gun deaths up 21% over last year
Through the first 172 days of 2021, gun violence killed 9,420 Americans, an average of 55 people a day, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a research nonprofit. The figures include homicides and accidental gun deaths but not suicides.
That’s about 21% more gun deaths than the 7,795 gun deaths at this time in 2020 – which turned into the deadliest year in at least two decades. Homicides rose in the country’s largest cities by 30% in 2020. There here have been 296 mass shootings in 2021, compared to 218 at this time in 2020.
“It is steamrolling out of control right now,” said Mark Bryant, executive director of the Gun Violence Archive. “We’re running well over a month ahead, and I’m seeing nothing suggesting we’re slowing down. In fact, it seems it’s the opposite.”
Biden has called gun violence in the U.S. a “public health epidemic” and a “national embarrassment.”
His latest gun efforts build off his initial actions in April to strengthen regulations on “ghost guns” and stabilizing braces that make firearms more lethal. Biden has called for Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban and pass legislation to close loopholes in gun background checks, but the legislative efforts face resistance from Republicans in the evenly divided Senate.
Biden will deliver his remarks after meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland and local officials about the rise of crime. They include New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Rapid City, South Dakota Mayor Steve Allender, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
In St. Louis, 96% of all homicides so far in 2021 have came from firearms, according to Psaki. And in New York City, shooting incidents are up 77% from March 2020 to March 2021, she said.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said the increase in gun violence spans both cities and suburbs and all regions. He anticipates it will increase more in the summer when more people go out, party and consume alcohol.
“I don’t know if it will be worse than last year. Last year was pretty horrific,” he said of the summer months. “Even if it is only as bad as last year, that’s really, really bad.”
Webster said the gun violence spike predated the pandemic, but picked up when the spread of the virus last spring led to soaring unemployment, closed schools and upended lives. He said it accelerated even more amid the national unrest following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis killed by a white police officer, setting off nationwide protests.
Besides these two major events, he said another factor for the spike in gun violence is more fundamental: more Americans are carrying guns. Arrests for illegal gun possession are also up over last year.
“Somewhat perversely, the actions that people take to protect themselves as individuals collectively does the opposite,” Webster said. “And I think that’s an important part of where we are right now.”
For Biden, the rise in crime also has political implications.
Republicans have long attacked Democrats as being soft on crime. And in the 2020 election, Republican candidates worked aggressively to tie Democrats to the “defund the police” slogan of progressive activists – even though Biden and many Democrats said they didn’t support the movement.
Republicans plan to double down on that line of attack in the 2022 midterms.
Steven Law, president and CEO of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told USA TODAY that Republicans will argue “defund the police” has turned from a rhetorical slogan to an active policy pursuit by some Democrats. Republican Senate candidates will couple that with anxiety about rising violent crime.
“You have an issue that has been completely quiet for decades, and all of a sudden, people are noticing it in their communities and feeling very personally threatened by it,” Law said. “You will see political problems the Democrats suffered in 2020 and see it significantly amplified, because it’s now a bigger issue than ever.”
Staff writers Phillip Bailey and Nick Penzenstadler contributed to this report. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As gun violence soars, President Biden to unveil new crime strategy