Biden targets law-breaking gun dealers in anti-crime plan

Colleen Long and Jonathan Lemire
The Associated Press
President Joe Biden speaks during an event Wednesday in the State Dining room of the White House to discuss his gun crime prevention strategy.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced new efforts Wednesday to stem a rising national tide of violent crime, declaring the federal government is “taking on the bad actors doing bad things to our communities.” But questions persist about how effective the efforts can be in what could be a turbulent summer.

Crime rates have risen after plummeting during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, creating economic hardship and anxiety. Biden’s plan focuses on providing money to cities that need more police, offering community support and most of all cracking down on gun violence and those supplying illegal firearms.

“These merchants of death are breaking the law for profit,” Biden said. “If you willfully sell a gun to someone who’s prohibited, my message to you is this: We’ll find you and we’ll seek your license to sell guns. We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets.”

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 outlined are aimed at going hard after gun dealers who break federal law and establishing strike forces in several cities to help stop weapons trafficking. He also said he would seek more money for the agency that tracks the nation’s guns.

But the rest of his new strategy boils down mostly to 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 – often both targets and perpetrators of violence.

But it’s voluntary.

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.

“This is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement,” said Biden, who noted that “crime historically rises during the summer, and as we emerge from this pandemic the traditional summer spike may be even more pronounced than it usually would be.”

But he’s also is trying to boost progressives’ efforts to reform policing, following a year of 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, the two efforts are increasingly billed that way.

Biden will try to do both at once. But Republicans quickly tried to portray his measures as government overreach and linked them 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,” 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 announced a “zero tolerance” policy that would give no leeway to gun dealers who fail to comply with federal law – their licenses to sell would be revoked on a first offense.

The president has already announced a half-dozen executive actions on gun control, including going after “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that lack serial numbers for tracking and often are purchased without background checks.

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.”

Legislation to expand background checks has so far stalled in the Senate after the House passed it in March, even though Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed then that the Senate would hold a vote on the bill.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy has been negotiating for weeks with individual Republicans to see if there is legislation that could win enough votes for passage. One option is to narrow the scope of the House bill and expand background checks only to commercial sales like gun shows. Most Republicans oppose regulating private sales between individuals, as the House bill would do, but some have said they would support tougher regulation of gun shows.

Biden will seek increased transparency on gun data and better coordination among states, and he he will push 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. The Justice Department is also launching strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to help take down illegal gun traffickers.

Police officials have said they are struggling with increasing crime and continued tensions between police and communities; some say their calls for support aren’t answered as they take the blame for the spike. Biden noted that $350 billion of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package 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.

While crime is rising – homicides and shootings are up from the same period last year in Chicago; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Houston – violent crime overall remains lower than it was a decade ago or even five years ago. Most violent crimes plummeted during the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic, as people stayed indoors and away from others, then started creeping up last summer.

It all comes against the backdrop of the national debate on policing and racism – and as a police reform bill is being crafted in Congress.

As a senator, Biden wrote several major anti-crime packages, including a 1994 bill that contained provisions now viewed by some as an overreaction to the crime spikes in the 1980s and 1990s. Critics say those bills helped lead to mass incarceration of Black Americans, and Biden’s involvement became an issue in his 2020 campaign.

Biden has expressed second thoughts about some aspects of the legislation. But he and his allies still point to the law’s provisions to address domestic violence, ban assault weapons and finance community policing.