Biden Offers Crime Plan as Polls Hint at Political Vulnerability

President Joe Biden announced a plan to curb gun crimes and crack down on firearms dealers amid a nationwide spike in violent crime that poses a political challenge for the White House.

The strategy would allow states and municipalities to tap into pandemic relief funds to hire police officers under certain circumstances, Biden said on Wednesday, providing resources to combat an increase in shootings, armed robberies and assaults.

The president also said he’ll pursue other measures -- some through executive action -- such as “zero tolerance” rules for gun dealers, expanding summer employment programs for teenagers and helping people released from prison find jobs.

“We have the opportunity to come together now, as Democrats and Republicans, as fellow Americans, to fulfill the first responsibility of a government in a democracy: to keep each other safe,” Biden said at the White House. “Enough.”

Biden’s effort comes amid an increase in violent crime, a trend that could stymie his push for Congress to pass a bipartisan police overhaul. Large cities saw a 30% increase in murders and an 8% rise in gun-related assaults in 2020, according to administration officials, who pointed to pandemic-related isolation and loose gun laws as having fueled the spike.

Polls signal growing unease over crime, a potential liability for Biden and Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released in May found that nearly 50% of respondents said crime is a very big problem in the U.S. About 36% of respondents at least somewhat approved of Biden’s handling of crime, while 44% at least somewhat disapproved.

Republicans have accused the president of being soft on crime, saying he has not done enough to rebut some liberals who call for cutting spending on police departments. Biden has repeatedly said he does not favor defunding the police.

The president also reiterated his call for lawmakers to pass gun-control measures, including a ban on assault weapons and a repeal of a liability shield for gunmakers. Asked whether he really thinks a narrowly divided Congress will reinstate an assault weapons ban, he said, “I never give up hope.”

The perception that Democrats are too cavalier about public safety led to the passage of the 1994 crime bill, which Biden supported as a senator. But Biden came under fire during the 2020 election over his backing of the law, which civil-rights activists have decried as helping to disproportionately fill American prisons with Black and Brown people.

“The Joe Biden of today understands that he needs to be different from the Joe Biden of the 1994 crime bill,” Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s justice division, said in a statement. “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

Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland held a meeting Wednesday at the White House on crime prevention. Participants included New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Police Chief Murphy Paul; Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott; and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

The plan that the president discussed on Wednesday has five pillars.

  • 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 help people released from prison get jobs

The crime strategy announcement gives Biden an opportunity to put his stamp on the debate over criminal justice. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden’s plan on community safety goes hand-in-hand with an effort by allies to reach a deal on a police overhaul.

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 said 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.

(Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.)

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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