Biden to launch gun crime strategy, steer COVID funds for police

Josh Wingrove

President Joe Biden will launch a comprehensive plan to curb gun crime, including by allowing states and municipalities to tap into coronavirus relief funding to hire police officers under certain circumstances.

Biden will unveil the strategy in a speech on Wednesday, officials familiar with the plan said, speaking on condition of anonymity before the announcement. Measures include toughening rules for gun dealers, expanding summer programs for teenagers and doing more to hire people released from prison.

In this June 18, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.

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Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland will also lead a meeting Wednesday at the White House on crime prevention. Among those scheduled to attend are New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul and the mayors of Baltimore, Maryland, and Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Biden is initiating the effort as data show a continued increase in violent crime, one that carried through the pandemic, and as Congress continues to negotiate over police reform. Polls have also signaled growing unease over crime, a potential liability for Biden and Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden’s strategy on community safety goes hand-in-hand with the effort by allies to reach a deal on police reform.

Bully Pulpit

“Yes, there needs to be reforms of police systems across the country; the president is a firm believer in that,” she said. “But there are also steps he can take, as president of the United States, to help address and hopefully reduce that crime. A big part of that, in his view, is putting in place gun safety measures, using – even as Congress is not moving forward currently – using the bully pulpit, but also using levers at his disposal, as president.”

Cities across the U.S. have experienced increases in violent crime, a trend that Biden’s White House says has been unfolding for years.

The plan that the president will discuss on Wednesday has five pillars, the officials said:

  • Stem the flow of firearms, including by enacting a zero-tolerance program for gun dealers who “willfully violate the law” and launching teams to slow the trafficking of guns between cities
  • Bolster funding for law enforcement, including by directing the Treasury Department to allow communities experiencing a surge in gun violence to use their money from the American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion state and local government funding to hire law enforcement officials or pay overtime for community policing strategies
  • Launch a task force of 14 cities to support community violence intervention programs, which could also tap into Covid aid funds
  • Expand summer programs and job availability for teens and young adults
  • Do more to encourage to help people released from prison get jobs

Some progressive Democrats have also amplified calls to “defund the police,” or redirect money from law enforcement to other community programs. That movement has prompted Republican attacks, which Biden has tried to deflect by instead calling for more money for targeted policing programs.

Biden had hoped for a deal on a police reform bill by late May. Senator Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who has been heavily involved in the talks, said he thinks it’s “June or bust” to get an agreement.

Psaki argued that Biden can move to quell crime without roiling the police reform talks. “Communities across the country who advocate and support police reform, they don’t see it as a mutually exclusive issue; neither does the president,” she said.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released in May found that 36% of respondents at least somewhat approved of Biden’s handling of crime, while 44% at least somewhat disapproved. Nearly 50% of respondents said crime is a very big problem in the U.S.