WASHINGTON — Responding to a spike in homicides across the country, President Joe Biden on Wednesday laid out an anti-crime strategy that cracks down on gun stores that don’t follow federal rules, steps up programs for recently released convicts and provides more support for police departments across the country.
The speech is an attempt by the White House to show it is being proactive on an issue that historically has been politically difficult for Democrats and to refocus attention on its efforts to beef up gun regulations.
It comes as local officials and experts fear the problem will only worsen over the coming months.
“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.
Although overall crime was down last year, according to FBI data, the murder rate rose about 25% and violent crime about 3%. Officials have offered many reasons for the increase, including huge numbers of gun sales over the past year along with the lingering stress from the pandemic.
Democrats routinely have been painted as soft on crime in key elections. Republicans have been pressing that advantage, battering the White House on the issue for weeks and noting that some of the spikes in violence are occurring in big Democratic-run cities.
“Folks, this shouldn’t be a red or blue issue. It’s an American issue,” said Biden, speaking from the State Dining Room. “We’re taking on the bad apples.”
Biden is familiar with the potency of that GOP line of attack. In the 1990s, the last time that violence dominated the news for a sustained period of time, “law and order” became a major campaign issue. Biden wrote a series of anti-crime measures, including a 1994 crime bill that critics say led to mass incarceration. The measure included some initiatives Democrats like, including a temporary ban on assault weapons.
Crime has again become a dominant issue in a slew of local campaigns, most notably the New York mayoral race, where a former police officer with a tough-on-crime posture is leading in Democratic primary.
Biden seized on the moment to press the case for tighter gun restrictions, pointing to the gap between the increase in homicides and other types of crime as a function of the ease with which guns can be obtained.
The White House also sees a political advantage in focusing on gun control as a way to stem the violence: The issue polls well among Democrats and independents, as opposed to stiffening sentences or backing aggressive policing tactics, policies favored by the right.
Democrats are divided over how to respond to the violence as it pertains to empowering police. Many in the party’s establishment political wing believe positions such as “defunding the police” hurt them in the 2020 election, while the left flank sees the crime wave as a potential obstacle to changing police practices. But they are unified in seeing tougher gun enforcement as a potential solution.
Republicans have sought to paint the entire Democratic Party with anti-policing slogans. “From city councils to the halls of Congress, many on the far left decided to crank the knob all the way up on anti-cop rhetoric, across the board,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said during a floor speech in May.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who chairs the official Senate campaign committee to reelect Republicans, said that GOP candidates will focus on crime in the midterm elections. “They should be really worried,” he said in an interview.
But Democratic strategists say that the party must be willing to talk about crime without being cowed by their opponents.
“There is no reason that Democrats shouldn’t tackle this issue straight on,” said James Carville, a top strategist to President Bill Clinton as he grappled with a spike in violence in the 1990s.
“It’s a national issue that requires a robust federal response.”
Still, he warned that the issue can dog whoever is in power.
“People do not like disorder of any kind,” Carville said. “It doesn’t matter. They just don’t. And right now people feel like — you can’t blame Biden for it — but there’s disorder in the country and he’s got to be out front.”
Biden will direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to seek to revoke licenses from gun sellers the first time they are caught willfully selling a weapon to a person who is not permitted to have one, neglecting to run a required background check or ignoring a federal request to provide trace information about a weapon used in a crime.
For those who fail to comply, Biden said, “My message is this: We will find you and we will seek your license to sell guns. We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets.”
The policy attacks a source of crime guns, which in some instances can be traced to sloppy or irresponsible dealers, experts say.
Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said the proposals to stiffen oversight of gun dealers are key.
“There’s a manageable number of problematic gun dealers, licensed dealers, who really seem to have a pattern and practice of operating their businesses in ways that pretty quickly get guns into the hands of criminals,” Webster said.
“It is a big deal to put more teeth in ATF’s ability to hold dealers accountable,” said Roseanna Ander, the executive director of the University of Chicago’s Crime and Education labs. “It’s long overdue,” she said, noting that politics has shifted over the past two decades to make it easier for a president to step up enforcement.
“There’s been a building momentum to be more sort of responsive on the gun issue,” Ander said.
Violent offenders, particularly those accused of murder, often have been charged and convicted of lesser crimes in the past. Experts say that a key way of fighting crime is ensuring that the felon population has resources to build new lives once they’ve served time.
“We can’t just continue to give them 25 bucks and a bus ticket,” Biden said Wednesday. “They end up right back where they started.”
The president also wants to reduce recidivism.
Biden said he would open opportunities to those leaving prison, including hiring more of them in federal jobs and encouraging businesses to do so. Biden also wants to offer additional federal housing vouchers for them, according to administration officials.
Community activists whom Biden’s team consulted applauded that aspect of his proposal. “This is one of the most comprehensive steps that any president has taken,” said Gregory Jackson Jr., the national advocacy director for the anti-gun violence group Community Justice Action Fund. Jackson said he recently met with Susan Rice, the director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council and a key architect of the plan. “It is almost poetic how they are handling this,” he said.
Biden highlighted how the $1.9 trillion stimulus package he signed into law includes funds that can be used by police departments in areas that have seen an increase in crime. The message is one the White House hopes will blunt criticism from Republicans who have tried to paint all Democrats as supporting the “defund the police” movement.
Republicans voted unanimously against the stimulus measure, which Democratic strategists hope to use to show that the GOP is the party that voted against money for policing.
Biden on Wednesday referred to that money as a “once-in-a-generation investment to reduce violence in America.”
Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland also met with a handful of mayors, local officials and advocates Wednesday afternoon to discuss the administration’s strategy.
Garland said the spike in violence is “deeply troubling” and stressed that federal and local authorities will need to cooperate. “Success depends on all of us joining together,” Garland said.
Biden previously issued some directives aimed at gun control. In April, he directed the Justice Department to draft new restrictions on “ghost guns” — kits that allow buyers to assemble firearms without a serial number.
In May, the Justice Department released a draft of the rule, which would require retailers to run background checks before selling kits that allow someone to readily make a gun at home, and it would force manufacturers to include a serial number on a firearm’s “frame or receiver” — the primary structural components of a gun — in easy-to-build kits. Serial numbers help ATF trace guns used in crimes.
He also instructed the Justice Department to create a template that states can use to enact red-flag laws, which allow judges to seize firearms from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. And he ordered a repeat of a landmark 2000 gun-trafficking study that was instrumental in helping police determine the source of guns used in crimes.
Biden announced David Chipman as his pick to run ATF. The former ATF agent is now a senior adviser to a gun-control group founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was severely wounded in a mass shooting in 2011. He has not yet been confirmed.
In his remarks, Biden also made a plea for Congress to pass gun control measures. He sought to rebut some gun proponents’ arguments that they need high-powered weapons as a check on the federal government.
“The tree of liberty is not watered by the blood of patriots,” Biden said. “If you think you need weapons to take on the government, you need F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.”
Biden added: “There has always been the ability to limit — rationally limit — the type of weapon that can be owned and who can own it.”