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President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a range of executive actions aimed at halting rising crime rates by cracking down on gun violence, stemming trade in illicit firearms, and implementing anti-violence programs in 15 American cities.
Speaking from the White House’s State Dining Room and accompanied by Attorney General Merrick Garland, Mr Biden warned that the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic might cause more than the usual uptick in violent crime that occurs each summer. However, the president said his administration is taking action to stem the tide, and alluded to his long record of experience in criminal justice matters.
“I’ve been at this a long time. And there are things we know that work to reduce gun violence and violent crime,” he said, citing background checks and bans on the purchase of so-called “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines as examples of effective policies.
Mr Biden, who spent nearly four decades in the Senate before serving as vice president for eight years under President Barack Obama, has had a hand in nearly every major piece of anti-crime legislation passed during that time. He was one of the principal authors of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994.
That landmark legislation included the Violence Against Women Act, a now-expired federal ban on many military-style semiautomatic rifles, and funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services program. The legislation has been credited for a long-running reduction in crime that began in the 1990s. Mr Biden has touted his role in enacting those provisions of the bill into law, but many criminal justice experts now say the bill was a major driver of the mass incarceration of Black Americans.
As a presidential candidate, Mr Biden campaigned on reinstating the federal assault weapons ban and enacting stricter background check laws. Since taking office, he has been stymied by a deadlocked Congress.
The president promised to continue to push for Congress to enact reforms, but said his administration will not wait to take action against gun merchants who sell to persons who are legally prohibited from owning firearms, noting that 90 per cent of guns found at crime scenes are sold by approximately five per cent of firearms dealers.
“These merchants offer profit for selling guns that are killing innocent people,” he said. “It’s wrong. It’s not acceptable”.
The president added that the Justice Department would be implementing a “zero tolerance” policy, under which gun dealers would lose their licenses for failing to abide by federal firearms regulations.
“If you will sell a gun to someone who’s prohibited from possessing it, if you’ve willfully failed to run a background check, if you willfully falsified a record, if you willfully fail to cooperate with investigations, my message to you is this: We’ll find you, and we will seek your license to sell guns,” Mr Biden said. “We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets.”
Additionally, the president announced that his administration would be allowing states and cities to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Covid-19 relief bill enacted into law earlier this year, to hire more police officers, pay for anti-violence programs, and other initiatives that are known to prevent crime, including substance abuse treatment and summer job programs.
Mr Biden’s remarks came following a meeting with a number of law enforcement officials and community stakeholders to discuss the administration’s plans.
One participant in the meeting, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, said the president was “engaged” during the proceedings.
“He wanted to know the strategies that are working on the ground…and we had a talk about the holistic response which the president outlined”.
Mr Grewal said Mr Biden’s plan “really models what’s been working on our communities”, including treating gun violence as a public health crisis, and hospital-based violence intervention programs. Such programs, he said, needed funding that was “cobbled together” under the Trump administration. He praised the Biden administration for allowing American Rescue Plan dollars to be used for violence intervention.
“It’s a welcome sight,” he said. “What we heard today was a whole-of-government approach, a holistic approach to address this public health crisis that is plaguing far too many cities across our country”.
Asked about Republican legislators who have panned Mr Biden’s proposals and blamed Democrats in charge of large cities and populous states for rising crime, Mr Grewal did not mince words.
“That’s a completely lazy and inaccurate narrative,” he said. “We’re being smart.”
Mr Biden again urged on Congress to pass what he called “sensible gun violence prevention initiatives”, including repealing liability protections for gun manufacturers, reimposing an “assault weapons” ban, and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which he called his “proudest legislation accomplishment,” so that it closes a loophole that allows stalkers and abusive partners who are not married to obtain firearms.
Republicans have long resisted such changes to the law, which they say violate the US Constitution’s guarantee of a right to keep and bear arms. But Mr Biden rejected such arguments, and said his administration was merely enforcing the Constitution, rather than trying to change it.
He noted that most responsible gun owners support measures such as bans on high-capacity magazines and stricter background check regulations. Such interventions, he explained, have “overwhelming support from the American people – including gun owners”.
“The bottom line is this: Let’s show the world and show ourselves that democracy works, and that we can come together as one nation,” he said. “We can do this.”