NEW YORK (AP) — Visiting a city still reeling from recent shootings of police, President Joe Biden will outline his administration’s strategy for confronting the national surge in gun violence and bloodshed in an address Thursday at the headquarters of the nation’s largest police force.
Biden’s visit to the New York Police Department and a violence interruption program at a school in Queens comes as illegal guns flood the streets and shootings claims scores of lives, including those of police officers. It’s a chance for the president to try to push back against criticism from Republicans that he is soft on crime, and to distance himself from those in the left flank of his Democratic Party who want to shift funding away from police departments to social spending programs.
Biden is navigating complex politics: he’s working to find ways to combat crime while also pushing for greater accountability after high-profile killings of Black people by police. The two efforts do not have to be at odds, though they are often billed that way.
“Both need to come hand-in-hand,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki said as the president arrived in New York. “Effective, accountable community policing helps us fight crime and it also makes us safer.“ Biden is stressing his decades-long commitment to supporting law enforcement, but he’s also working to ensure communities have the support they need.
Recent polls show that Americans are increasingly concerned about crime and that Republicans have an advantage over Democrats as the party that would do a better job dealing with it.
The president’s strategy on crime relies heavily on buy-in from state and local officials as he suggests ways to spend federal dollars, and expands on initiatives already under way. It demonstrates the limits to what he can do when there is no appetite in Congress to pass gun legislation. The strongest effort in recent years failed, even after 20 children and six adults were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Guns are at the center of the debate as the nation grapples with homicides that spiked nationally in 2020, the final year of the Trump administration. Even before the spike, 75% of all homicides in the U.S. were due to firearm injuries and guns were responsible for 91% of youth homicides, according to a January report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on gun violence and suicides over 2018-2019.
That violence continues today. In New York last month, an 11-month-old girl was wounded by a stray bullet and a teenage fast-food cashier shot to death. Nationwide, 32 officers have been shot on the job, five fatally. Two died in New York in two weeks; one was buried Wednesday.
Americans purchased a record number of firearms in 2020. Law enforcement officers recovered historically high numbers of firearms last year and are coming across more firearms stripped of serial numbers, making them impossible to trace.
Some early data suggests that the period between when a gun was purchased and used in a crime and recovered by police has shortened, compared with earlier years.
To combat this, the Biden administration is clamping down more on traders of “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that lack serial numbers used to trace them and that are often purchased without a background check.
The Justice Department is working to stop the movement of guns north along the Interstate 95 corridor from Southern states with lax gun laws. Federal prosecutors will prioritize cases of those who sell or transfer guns used in violent crime and, if Biden’s budget is enacted, get specific agents dedicated to the effort.
Federal strike forces are deployed to New York and other cities, aimed at cracking down on gun trafficking. Federal agents are embedded in homicide units in police departments around the country, and the U.S. Marshals Service regularly conducts fugitive sweeps to arrest people with outstanding state or federal warrants.
In May, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will host police executives from across the country to collaborate on solutions to gun violence. But the agency has been without a permanent leader since 2013. Biden’s first nominee, a former ATF agent who had advocated for stricter gun control, was withdrawn in September amid opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats. There’s no sign of a new nominee.
Biden has proposed a large increase in dollars for local community policing programs, and if his social spending agenda were to pass, even more funds would be made available — but that effort is stalled in Congress, too.
He’s also encouraged cities to invest some of their COVID-19 relief money into policing and pushed alternative crime reduction steps such as increased community support and summer jobs for teenagers. He was expected to talk more about this effort on Thursday.
Some states and cities are already acting. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio proposed spending $250 million in federal funds to help first responders fight violent crime and recover from pandemic-related hardship. In Aurora, Colorado, where dozens of officers have left the force, those who remain will split $6 million budgeted for bonuses.
Biden will be joined in New York by Attorney General Merrick Garland, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain. Once an outspoken critic of his own department and someone who was beaten by police as a teenager, Adams portrayed himself during his campaign as someone who could bridge the divide between the New York Police Department and activists pushing for major change.
Long reported from Washington. AP writer Mike Balsamo contributed to this report.