WHITE HOUSE – U.S. President Joe Biden vowed Wednesday to reduce gun violence as he warned the nation about a dangerous summer spike in killings.
“We’re taking on the bad actors doing bad and dangerous things in our communities and to our country,” he said in a White House speech outlining a comprehensive government program.
Biden vowed “zero tolerance” for rogue gun dealers and those who traffic weapons from city to city.
“We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets,” he said.
The Biden administration will permit $350 billion in federal stimulus money to fund police departments in areas with rising violent crime rates.
The president also said loopholes needed to be closed because “there are too many people today who are able to buy a gun but shouldn’t be able to buy a gun.”
Asked by VOA what government could do to change the mindset of those who would shoot others with guns, Biden mentioned utilizing mental health programs, supporting early childhood education, not denying public housing to released felons and finding ways to reengage those released from prison in their neighborhoods, “giving them some hope, some opportunity.”
Speaking just prior to the president, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said prosecutors across the country would work with local partners “to establish an immediate plan to address the spike in violent crime that typically occurs during the summer.”
Biden unveiled his crime plan after meeting with a bipartisan group of mayors, community activists and law enforcement officials.
“The president was engaged. He wanted to know the strategies that were working on the ground in our communities, in our states,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “And we had a talk about a holistic response, which the president outlined in his proposal today, along with Attorney General Garland, and the response really models what’s been working in all of our communities.”
Grewal and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott told reporters that the gun violence in their communities was a “public health crisis.”
Many Republicans are seizing on an uptick in crime to blast those on the political left over their purported anti-police policies.
“Biden wants to blame guns and lawful gun owners instead of Democrats’ open embrace of the ‘Defund the Police’ movement and soft-on-crime approach,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, in many ways, what the president is proposing will not stem the tide of violent crime,” Zack Smith, a Heritage Foundation legal fellow, told VOA. “What he’s saying now about funding the police sounds good, but many in his party are calling to defund the police, which is exactly what we don’t need right now.”
As a U.S. senator in the 1990s, Biden helped craft the controversial 1994 Crime Bill, which critics blame for the mass incarceration of African Americans in recent decades. But during the 2020 presidential campaign, he distanced himself from the legislation and embraced much of the progressives’ criminal reform agenda — even as he stopped short of supporting calls to ”defund” the police.
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“The Joe Biden of today understands that he needs to be different from the Joe Biden of the 1994 Crime Bill. That’s because leaders of both political parties now recognize that a ‘lock-em-up approach’ doesn’t address systemic problems and only creates generations of harm,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement following the president’s remarks on Wednesday.
“As leaders grapple with rising rates of homicides and gun violence, we must be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of America’s failed war on crime,” said the ACLU’s statement.
Violent crime started trending higher in 2015, and there is little evidence that recent criminal justice reforms fueled the surge, according to Aaron Chalfin, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
“This is a problem that’s touching most big cities similarly, so it doesn’t seem like specific city-level reforms are going to be a major driver,” Chalfin said.
In New York City, there have been 194 homicides so far this year, up from 171 during the same period last year, according to the latest police data. In Los Angeles, the second-largest U.S. city, the number stands at 148 homicides, up from 121 last year, while in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, homicides have increased to 307 this year, from 296 during the same period last year.
The spike in homicides and shootings started last summer after cities began easing COVID-19-related restrictions. According to a recent survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization of police executives representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada, there were 8,077 homicides in 66 major U.S. cities in 2020, up 33% from 2019, which had 6,087.
Precisely what is driving the violence remains a matter of debate. While criminologists point to the upheavals caused by the pandemic, nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death and a proliferation of guns on American streets, many law enforcement officials blame a ”softening” of criminal laws that have allowed thousands of offenders to avoid jail time.
VOA’s Masood Farivar contributed to this report.