President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced a comprehensive strategy on violent crime prevention – with a particular emphasis on gun crimes – amid a nationwide surge in violent crime that’s emerged as an area of concern for the White House.
Following his meeting with state and local leaders to discuss the spike in crime, Biden addressed the issue in a speech at the White House.
“Crime historically rises during the summer and as we emerge from this pandemic with the country opening back up again, the traditional summer spike may be more pronounced than it usually would be,” Biden said.
Biden’s speech Wednesday was an important marker ahead of a summer of reopening from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been marked by surging crime in cities across the country. The White House has grown concerned over increasing crime in recent weeks and the President hoped to use the speech to dampen what has already become a cudgel for Republicans eager to run a “law and order” campaign in next year’s midterm elections.
Biden's White House
During his remarks, Biden pressed on establishing an assault weapons ban – a move that’s supposed to be approved through Congress.
“I’ve been at this a long time, and there are things we know that work to reduce gun violence and violent crime, and things that we don’t know about,” Biden said.
“But things we know about – background checks for purchasing a firearm are important. A ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – no one needs to have a weapon that can fire over 30, 40, 50, even up to 100 rounds, unless you think the deer are wearing Kevlar vests or something. Community policing and programs that keep neighborhoods safe and keep folks out of trouble – these efforts work, they save lives, but over time, these policies were gutted, are woefully underfunded.”
Asked if he still has hope that Congress would pass such a ban, Biden said, “I never give up hope.”
Biden took the opportunity to defend his administration against charges it would inappropriately curtail Americans’ Second Amendment rights and countered the gun lobby’s arguments about rises in violent crime.
“The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people could own a gun, and what type of weapon you could own – you couldn’t buy a cannon,” Biden remarked. “The point is that there’s always been the ability to limit, rationally limit, the type of weapon that can be owned and who can own it.”
The President announced “a major crackdown to stem the flow of guns used to commit violent crimes,” warning the administration would pursue a “zero tolerance” policy “for gun dealers who willfully violate existing laws and regulations.”
“If you willfully sell a gun to someone who is prohibited from possessing it, if you willfully fail to run a background check, if you willfully falsify a record, if you willfully fail to cooperate with the tracing requests or inspections, my message to you is this: We’ll find you and we’ll seek your license to sell guns,” Biden said.
Biden also pressed Congress to confirm David Chipman as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – an agency that has long been without a confirmed director.
The crime prevention strategy institutes a number of measures among federal agencies and it also relies on allowing states to use American Rescue Plan dollars for more flexible applications, including hiring law enforcement above pre-pandemic levels or using the funds toward community violence intervention programs.
According to the White House, Biden’s “Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety” will focus on five main pillars: stem the flow of firearms used to commit violence, including by holding rogue firearms dealers accountable for violating federal laws; support local law enforcement with federal tools and resources to help address summer violent crime; invest in evidence-based community violence interventions; expanding summer programming, employment opportunities, and other services and supports for teenagers and young adults; and help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reenter their communities.
Agencies also announced a number of steps on Wednesday related to the strategy.
The Treasury Department announced guidance that highlights that communities experiencing a surge in gun violence as a result of the pandemic may use American Rescue Plan funds for policing-related efforts. The Office of Personnel Management will now consider whether to remove barriers for employment to formerly incarcerated individuals, and Housing & Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge issued a letter that addresses housing needs for formerly incarcerated individuals, including the use of 70,000 emergency housing vouchers funded by the American Rescue Plan.
Additionally, Biden announced that the administration will convene and support a community violence intervention collaborative program in more than a dozen jurisdictions. The jurisdictions are committing to using a portion of their American Rescue Plan funding or other public funding to increase investment in community violence intervention programs.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said in remarks ahead of Biden’s speech that the measures by the federal government will help, but not solve, the surging crime wave.
“The Justice Department’s violent crime reduction strategy, and our initiatives to stem the rising tide of illegal guns, will save lives. But these steps alone will not solve the problem of violent crime,” Garland said. “Success depends on all of us joining together – those of you in this room, the many like you across the country who are working to keep communities safe, and the people of our communities themselves.”
The announcement marks a moment for Biden to pivot the public narrative about his approach to crime-related issues, given his complicated past as an author of the 1994 crime bill and resisting pressure from the left to support defunding the police. And it also comes as bipartisan police reform legislation slowly moves its way through Congress.
After years of decreasing crime statistics, the homicide rate surged in major cities in 2020 and that trend appears poised to continue this year. Last weekend, there were 10 mass shootings across nine states that killed seven people and injured at least 45 others, according to data compiled by CNN and Gunviolencearchive.org.
During a call with reporters on Tuesday, senior administration officials repeatedly connected the rise in violent crimes to the pandemic.
“We know that the secondary consequences of the pandemic and the proliferation of illegal guns has led to increased violence over this past year and a half, including a 30% increase in homicides and 8% increase in gun assaults in large cities in 2020,” one official said.
A second official, when asked whether the White House would address links between rising crimes in cities to cities’ decisions to stop prosecuting low-level crimes, responded, “Our focus is on gun violence. That’s where the President’s focus is. That’s the problem we’re seeing right now.”
“Some crimes that are trending down, including property crimes and some low-level crimes – that varies by jurisdiction. But where we’re seeing the increase is in gun violence and that is why gun crime is the centerpiece here – the focus,” the official continued.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Kevin Liptak and DJ Judd contributed to this report.