By Maegan Vazquez, Peter Nickeas, Evan Perez and Priya Krishnakumar, CNN
President Joe Biden heads to New York City on Thursday after a spate of headline-grabbing violent crimes, hoping to turn the politically fraught issue of crime into a new focus on combating gun violence.
As Democrats grapple with how to tackle a problem that has been used against them by Republicans with some success in past elections — and is shaping up to be a key issue in the midterms this fall — Biden will be elevating his party’s work on combating illegal guns onto the national stage.
In New York, the President is expected to lay out how his administration will build on the comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence he unveiled last summer amid a surge in violent crimes. The trip comes amid a rash of high-profile shootings in major cities, including New York, and less than two weeks after two New York Police Department officers were fatally shot on the job. The trip also takes place as several major American cities combat rising homicides and shootings — 2020 saw the largest year-to-year spike in homicides on record, and some major cities recorded more homicides in 2020 or 2021 than in any other year on record.
Tackling gun violence is seen as a priority for both parties and a possible area where Democrats can build political momentum going into the elections. Biden’s Department of Justice identified gun crime as a major priority upon the start of the President’s term in early 2021, and the White House often points to gun violence as its top concern when it comes to crime in America.
On Thursday, Biden will bring together local, state and federal authorities, including US Attorney General Merrick Garland, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams — a retired NYPD police captain elected, in part, on a promise to reduce the violent crime that has gripped the city over the past two years. The trip will include stops at NYPD headquarters for a Gun Violence Strategies Partnership meeting and at a New York public school to discuss community violence intervention programs with local leaders.
A senior administration official previewing the trip told reporters that Biden is traveling to New York “because it is a community where they continue, like many other cities across the country, to experience a spike in gun violence as a result of the pandemic. This is a place where the city has successfully deployed many strategies like those the President supports.”
The Justice Department on Thursday will announce new steps the agency is taking to build on Biden’s strategy, including the launches of a national ghost gun enforcement initiative as well as a national drug-related violence reduction initiative, another senior administration official said. The President will reaffirm his call on Congress to pass “common sense” gun laws and reach bipartisan agreement on the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill — which includes significant funding for the strategies he’s proposing, according to the first senior administration official.
The plans from Biden’s White House come as the President pledged in recent weeks to talk more about his administration’s accomplishments ahead of this year’s elections. He has also indicated plans to work more with Democratic campaigns during the midterm cycle, saying in January that he wants “to go out and make the case in plain simple language as to what it is we have done, what we want to do and why we think it’s important.”
While it’s too early to say whether the elevated rate of gun violence over the last two years will play a major role across the midterm elections, officials have suggested it’s something Biden and the White House will continue to discuss publicly during his second year in office.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, for example, underscored this week that “addressing crime is something that is a root of the President’s agenda.”
Guns and policing
The issues of guns and policing are inextricably linked, as any legislative push that criminalizes gun or gun-accessory possession will rely on police to arrest and process alleged offenders. Gun crime is already a major focus of police departments in major cities and departments seized thousands of guns last year, through enforcement and gun turn-in events.
Early in the Biden administration, officials at the Justice Department identified rising gun crime, a major priority for the previous administration, as an issue they would have put near the top of their own agenda, alongside efforts to tackle criminal justice revisions.
The increase in crime that began in the latter part of the Trump administration had prompted then-Attorney General William Barr to expand on efforts made by his predecessor Jeff Sessions to provide more resources aimed at targeting gun crime in cities such as Chicago. Biden officials, many of whom were veterans of the Obama administration, have now sought to confront an issue that has proved troublesome for Democrats.
Days after the officers were shot in New York, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco touted the Biden administration’s efforts to both address police misconduct and support police in their efforts to combat violent crime, saying it wasn’t an “either/or” proposition.
“What we are doing is applying every tool that we can to address the violent crime rise that we’ve seen in this country,” Monaco told CNN. “That means going after and targeting the most violent offenders and working with our state and local law enforcement partners to lock those people up. That means going after gun violence and the illicit trafficking of guns that fuel it.”
“Let’s just be very clear: Cutting funding to law enforcement when crime is on the rise does not make sense. That’s a mistake,” Monaco added.
She pointed to the 1,000 new police officers the Justice Department has funded at police departments across the country, as well as the budget proposal to Congress for an additional $300 million to fund state and local law enforcement.
The surge in gun violence and homicides in some places has been a political vulnerability for Democrats and the Biden administration, coming after the “defund the police” movement that swept across the country in 2020.
When attention to police misconduct was greatest, in summer 2020, some protesters argued for the outright abolition of police forces, while others have called for shifting funds from police to other social service agencies. The “defund the police” movement came to represent many things to many people, and gained popularity in progressive circles as homicides spiked in most big cities across America.
The politics of this phrase and those who’ve used it, in part, is why Congress has not passed a comprehensive national strategy to overhaul policing. Republicans used the refrain to attack Biden and other Democrats, though then-candidate Biden staked out his position, days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, that he opposed “defunding the police.”
During a 2020 meeting in Georgia before the state’s US Senate runoff elections, Biden told the leaders of seven civil rights organizations that the topic of police reform should be avoided because Republicans have seized on the “defund the police” movement to paint Democrats as radical and anti-police.
“That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police,” he said at the time.
Democrats trying to shed ‘defund the police’ stigma
When responding to either persistent violence or single incidents that have captured national attention, prominent Democrats — including the President — have offered support for police officers and praised their role in combating violence. Now Biden and many Democrats in elections around the country are looking to get past the platitudes and highlight something they think will bring real results: the American Rescue Plan’s crime prevention funding.
During a summer surge in crimes last year, the Biden administration announced that $350 billion in state and local funding provided by the American Rescue Plan — the President’s major Covid-19 relief bill, signed into law in March 2021 — was permitted to be used for hiring law enforcement, paying officers overtime and enforcement efforts to reduce gun violence exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as technology and equipment investments for law enforcement. Those provisions are something the President is expected to focus on in New York.
When asked how Democrats will address gun violence during their midterm campaigns, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pointed to the American Rescue Plan funds for ensuring “local police, first responders and violence intervention groups have the resources they need to keep our communities safe and prevent crime.” And he said he’s confident that Adams’ meeting with Biden “will align with our priorities as House Democrats: Keep communities safe and ensure accountability in the ranks.”
While Democrats hope the funding from the American Rescue Plan helps their campaign pitch, many of their voters want to see legislation passed that tackles gun violence. But the hurdles posed by rising crime have proved difficult for Democrats to surmount in the past.
During the Obama administration, a similar rise in crime helped sink efforts to revamp oversight of policing after a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Then-Vice President Biden oversaw a push to improve background checks and keep guns away from criminals. Among the ideas studied then was one to break apart the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the government’s main regulatory agency on guns, and distribute its responsibilities among the FBI and other federal agencies. The idea was that giving some of the ATF’s policing responsibilities to the FBI would help insulate its work from the pressure that comes from gun-rights groups.
The administration shelved those efforts after opposition from Republicans and even some Democrats.
The current efforts largely revolve around pushing more money to cities and states to fund policing, which could help the administration shed the “defund” stigma.
Advocacy groups supporting stricter gun laws, like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, are also crediting the Biden administration for its work on the issue.
Kris Brown, the president of Brady, told CNN she thinks that this week Biden will focus on “building the bridge between law enforcement and community violence intervention.”
“What he’s trying to do is really show that this is not an ‘us or them.’ It’s both,” she said. “Law enforcement has a role to play (and) yes, they have to be held accountable. … This is not something that can be achieved without police. At the same time, law enforcement has to be community-oriented and support programs and communities that are trying to lift up the same people that committed law enforcement officers are really there to protect.”
Gun safety is a winning issue for voters, according to advocates, who say their efforts were part of what led to Democrats retaking the US House of Representatives in 2018.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, pointed out that gun safety groups outspent the National Rifle Association during the 2018 midterm election cycle.
“It’s a winning issue because the vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun safety measures,” she said.
Adzi Vokhiwa, the federal affairs director at the anti-gun-violence group Giffords, argued that “the urgency and concern” among voters for addressing gun violence “has increased even beyond where we were in 2018.”
“We’ve seen in the last few years with the pandemic that there’s been an increase in violence and an increase in violent crime, and that’s really concerning to people,” she added.
Cities still reckoning with gun crime
The shooting of the two officers in New York — which led to Biden’s visit — was done by a man who fired a Glock 45 that had been stolen in 2017 in Baltimore, according to authorities. The incident underscored a problem that cities have long grappled with: Guns are small, easy to conceal, frequently stolen and often wielded by those who aren’t lawfully allowed to own them.
What’s more, police agencies in some of the country’s biggest cities seized or recovered near decade-high numbers of guns in 2021, according to data provided to CNN. And though homicides spiked in 2020 — the greatest year-over-year increase on record — at least 10 large American cities saw a record number of homicides last year. Two-thirds of the 40 most populous cities surpassed their 2020 homicide totals.
Marvin Richardson, acting director of the ATF, told reporters Monday that a key focus of that agency is to assist other agencies in tracing guns and analyzing ballistic evidence to help identify shooters and make sure evidence left behind is “put to work as quickly as we can to identify actual leads.”
One of the metrics the ATF tracks is a recovered gun’s “time to crime,” the time between when a gun is originally purchased and when it is used or suspected of being used in a crime. In its 2020 firearms trace report, the bureau found that the average time to crime dropped from eight years in 2019 to seven in 2020.
The percentage of traces where the time to crime was under one year increased sharply over the past few years, from 16% in 2015 to 29% in 2020.
The ATF said in a statement to CNN last week that “firearms with a short Time-to-Crime have the most immediate investigative potential for law enforcement officials because they are likely to have changed hands less frequently from the time of the original purchase until recovery by law enforcement.”
Adams, who announced his administration’s focus on reducing violent crime after the two NYPD officers were shot, has said New York City police would continue to work to disrupt the influx of guns that have fueled the city’s violent crime crisis.
“We have to stop the flow of guns,” he said. “We are removing thousands of guns off our streets, and it appears as though for every gun we remove from the street, five are coming in. That is unacceptable.”
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