The list goes on. Almost every major American city has seen mass shootings in recent weeks. But with the typical increase in violent crime over the summer months only just beginning, President Joe Biden also finds himself in the midst of a killing spree on the verge of overtaking America’s spiral of gun violence of the year. last.
For a White House that has intensely focused on eradicating Covid-19 and managing trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending and social protection programs through Congress, violence presents a multitude of challenges that administration officials have so far struggled to get their weapons about. First and foremost: determining how to stem the bloodshed without exacerbating existing tensions over policing or hampering criminal justice reform efforts – a Democratic priority.
For now, the White House’s main response is to focus on the weapons that kill the most.
Homicides in the first quarter of 2021 were 24% higher than in the same period in 2020 and 49% higher than in the first quarter of 2019. And according to the Gun Violence Archive, guns are at the origin of much of this peak.
“It’s mind-boggling. This gives food for thought, ”said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco on Tuesday in a town hall with police chiefs. “This is something that the DOJ is committed to doing everything possible to reverse the deeply troubling trends and a very bad trajectory that we are on. “
For weeks, the White House has been in contact with major cities to assess the seriousness of the problem. This included a discussion in May between Home Policy Advisor Susan Rice and Lightfoot, in which the mayor explained how the federal government could help. On June 15, Lightfoot was among more than two dozen mayors who signed a letter asking the White House to take further action, ranging from investigating federally licensed gun dealers to cracking down on illegal firearms sales on social media platforms.
On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced five strike forces that will target the flow of illegal firearms in places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC While Chicago, for example, has put in place its own gun control measures. , it has always struggled with the illegal arms trade from neighboring Indiana, as well as from the southern states.
The Justice Department’s announcement predated Biden’s speech on Wednesday on increasing shootings and other violent crimes. The president is expected to unveil additional measures targeting guns and crime, including giving cities the opportunity to leverage funding from his US bailout to help fight violence, by forcing a new zero-tolerance policy towards law-breaking arms dealers and investing in community policing, among other initiatives, according to a senior administration official.
Still, stemming the violence in big cities will be much more complicated, involving a delicate balance both with the left flank of the presidential party and with law enforcement.
Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, are already trying to pin the outbreak of violence in the White House, even though the increase in gun violence occurred under the previous administration. Conservative media run a constant stream of disturbing headlines highlighting the increase in shootings and homicides year over year.
“As we meet tonight, our country is being destroyed before our very eyes,” Trump said in a recent speech to the North Carolina Republican Party convention. “Crime is exploding. Police services are torn apart and funded. Can you believe that? “
Although Biden offered to increase police funding – and campaigned on this platform – a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee criticized the president for failing to hold his own party responsible for pushing to fund the police, “endangering communities and triggering an increase in crime across the country.” ”
“Small businesses, families and communities in America are feeling the devastating effects of anti-police rhetoric and police service budget cuts at the hands of Democratic politicians,” RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said.
Republicans attempted to use this manual in a recent congressional special election in New Mexico, which the Democratic nominee won hands down. But there are early signs the attacks could impact Biden’s position. A new poll in Iowa, for example, showed that only 35% of those polled in the state approved of Biden’s approach to criminal justice and 52% disapproved of it.
The concern of Democrats is starting to resonate in cities across the country. In the New York mayoral race, rising crime has at times dominated the debate. Democrat Eric Adams, former cop and local official, is the frontrunner to win the Democratic primary held yesterday.
Already, White House officials are pushing back attempts to portray violence as a partisan issue, with aides and allies pointing to statistics showing an increase in violent crime under the Trump administration, including a 33% increase in homicides in major cities in 2020. In back-to-back briefings this week, press secretary Jen Psaki mentioned that the increase in violent crime started 18 months ago, with some crimes on the rise for five years.
“When we talk about funding the police, it has turned into a dog whistle attack,” said Karen Finney, Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton campaign spokesperson. Finney said Trump, who during protests over the death of George Floyd tweeted “when the looting begins, the shooting begins,” inflamed tensions with divisive language. “I remind them that when Trump had the opportunity, he chose to make the situation worse by throwing gasoline on the fire when he was president.”
Republican attacks have largely focused on cities that have cut police budgets only to seek to restore, if not expand, law enforcement funding in 2021. Biden himself, his aides note and his allies, argued for more community policing, which focuses on deepening relationships with an area to reduce lower-level offenses, even when the tactic has fallen out of favor with some Democrats.
Yet he has also had to manage and respond to the liberal wing of his party, which has pushed for stricter standards governing police officers, and the liberalization of local and state prosecutor’s offices – changes that officials of law enforcement blame for deterring police and contributing to violence. .
“I’ve been in the police force for 25 years and I can’t recall it ever being so unappealing to new hires,” Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields said Tuesday during a panel discussion in police chiefs before a session with senior Justice Ministry officials.
Shields said increased criticism and scrutiny by law enforcement had taken its toll among officers, some of whom complained about protesters coming to their homes.
“It’s really tough because while Biden did what he clearly politically believed he needed to do, at the same time law enforcement, at large, got a lot more conservative,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of the Police and former lobbyist for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who worked with Biden on the 1994 Crime Bill. “He’s a Joe Biden evolving, but as it evolves in one direction, law enforcement evolves in another, increasing the difficulty. “
Biden’s development on the subject has, to some extent, mirrored that of the country. What brought it to national prominence in the ’80s and’ 90s was a harsh approach against crime that was an explicit attempt to rid the Democratic Party of its politically perilous image of soft-on-crime. But the major bill he helped Shephard, which put more cops on the streets and included stricter sentencing guidelines, became a complication by the 2020 Democratic primary as candidates denounced incarceration mass that resulted.
“Whether you like the things he did or not, he led and he acted and did by his license and by the majority at the time what seemed like the best course of action. I just hope he channeled the Joe Biden of the 80s and 90s and roll up our sleeves and go after these criminals, ”Pasco said.
Several law enforcement officials have said in interviews that they are less sympathetic to the mayors of large cities, saying their own policies are to be blamed for the increase in gun violence and killings.
“It really is the natural and predictable consequence of the powerlessness of law enforcement,” said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.
Many mayors, in turn, are asking the federal government for help, especially as violence continues to escalate as cities reopened after the pandemic.
“It’s at least a way of acknowledging that there is a problem and that the White House and potentially Congress can have a role to play in helping cities and states get out of it,” Johnson told About Biden’s speech on Wednesday.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.