Responding to a string of mass shootings and rising crime in the United States, President Joe Biden is taking new steps to control gun violence with a “zero-tolerance” policy for gun dealers and new funding for police and communities.
Biden in a speech on Wednesday will announce new gun safety measures and will redirect some of $350bn in COVID-19 funds to address crime, according to White House officials.
The funding can be used by cities to hire law enforcement officers, pay overtime, prosecute gun traffickers and invest in technology to make law enforcement more efficient, Biden Administration officials involved in details of the plan told The Associated Press.
The president believes “gun violence” is a “significant driver” of violent crime “in our communities and cities across the country”, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday previewing the president’s announcement.
Biden will seek more transparency on gun data and better coordination among states and will meet on Wednesday with state leaders, mayors, police officials and others to discuss ways to make communities safer.
Biden will ask Congress for more money for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency responsible for enforcing federal gun laws and regulating gun dealers, White House officials said.
The Justice Department is launching strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC, to help take down illegal gun traffickers, building on an initiative begun last month.
Biden had issued executive orders in April directing the Justice Department to crack down on self-assembled “ghost guns” that do not have serial numbers and cannot be traced to their owners.
Police officials throughout the US are struggling with increasing crime and continued tensions between police and communities as homicides in large cities have risen 30 percent and gun assaults are up by eight percent, according to data from the Council on Criminal Justice cited by the White House.
“Many of us – if not most of us – are seeing a rise in crime, while at the same time, we’re hearing calls for reform,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said of cities in remarks Tuesday at a forum on policing.
“And some of those calls are to the extreme of dismantle and defund … while all of the same time we’re sworn to protect the people,” Harrison said, according to the AP.
As Biden announces his anti-gun strategy, Congress is debating larger proposals for police reform and background check requirements for gun purchases.
There are limits to the controls the president and Congress can seek to impose on guns in the US. The Second Amendment of the US Constitution protects citizens’ right to own weapons.
Biden has long political experience with implementing anti-crime and gun control measures that will help him as he navigates the US’s sharply divided present-day politics on guns and crime.
The latest rise in crime in the US, which coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, has become a focal point of criticism of Biden by Republican politicians who are quick to characterise Democrats as “soft on crime”.
“The secondary consequences of the pandemic and the proliferation of illegal guns have led to increased violence over the past year and a half,” a senior administration official told the Reuters news agency.
Biden was the lead sponsor of a 1994 crime bill that expanded federal prisons, imposed a 10-year ban on assault weapons and led to tougher prison sentences for gang-related and other crimes.
Over the years, Biden and his Democratic Party have taken criticism from the African American community for elements of the bill that resulted in harsher sentences on drug crimes for Black Americans and Biden now supports sentencing reforms.
Meanwhile, bipartisan talks in Congress on police reforms following the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the US in 2020 may be nearing a conclusion.
It remains unclear whether Republicans and Democrats, who have been far apart on key issues, will be able to agree on a package of police reforms this year.