WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is announcing new efforts Wednesday to stem a rising national tide of violent crime but questions persist about how effective the federal efforts will be in calming what could be a turbulent summer.
Biden’s plan focuses on addressing gun violence, providing money to cities that need more police and offering community support. Crime rates have risen after plummeting during the initial months of the Coronavirus pandemic, creating economic hardship and anxiety.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden believes the rise in crime was “unacceptable” and that there would be a specific focus on measures “to stem the flow of firearms used to commit violence.”
But there are also tricky politics at play, and Biden’s plan shows how few options the Democratic president has on the issue.
The steps he is taking are aimed at cracking down on gun dealers who break federal law and establishing strike forces in several cities to help stop weapons trafficking. He also is seeking more money for the agency that tracks the nation’s guns.
But the rest of his new strategy is largely suggestions for beleaguered localities. He’s encouraging cities to invest some of their COVID-19 relief funds into policing and pushing alternative crime reduction steps such as increased community support and summer jobs for teenagers. If city officials listen to the White House, it could make an impact. But it’s all voluntary.
White House aides believe that Biden, with his long legislative record on fighting crime as a senator, is not easy to paint as soft on the issue, and the president has been clear that he is opposed to the “defund the police” movement, which has been effectively used against other Democrats to cast them as anti-law enforcement.
But he’s also is trying to boost progressives’ efforts to reform policing, following a year of mass demonstrations and public anguish sparked by the killing by police of George Floyd and other Black people across the country. While combating crime and overhauling the police don’t have to be at odds with each other, the two efforts are increasingly billed that way.
Biden will try to do both at once, according to senior administration officials who detailed his upcoming address on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Republicans quickly tried to portray the measures as government overreach and linked it to efforts to rein in policing.
“I think a lot of it ties back to this whole ‘defund the police’ movement and some of the disruption we had in civil society last year,” said Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said on Fox News. “And I think that’s part of, when you start undermining that basic foundation, you start breaking apart the bonds that hold us together and that’s why you see an increase in crime.”
Biden will announce a “zero tolerance” policy — not to be confused with the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration that separated thousands of children from their families at the US-Mexico border. This one gives no leeway to gun dealers who fail to comply with federal law — their license to sell will be revoked on the first offense.
The president has already announced a half-dozen executive actions on gun control, including cracking down on “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that lack serial numbers used to trace them and that are often purchased without a background check.
A number of anti-crime and gun safety groups, including the Brady Campaign and Everytown for Gun Safety, applauded the administration’s efforts.
“The president is helping start a much-needed conversation about reducing violent crime. A greater investment in community interventions will help take a bite out of violent crime,” said Paul DelPonte, head of the National Crime Prevention Council. “Strategies that increase public engagement in public safety are proven crime stoppers. Putting more police officers who are trained and certified in crime prevention on the streets of our communities makes sense.”