Biden wades into thorny politics of gun control as GOP seizes on rising levels of crime

Biden wades into thorny politics of gun control as GOP seizes on rising levels of crime
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A march against gun violence in Chicago in December 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)
A march against gun violence in Chicago in December 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration is preparing to roll out a slate of plans to arrest rising crime rates by focusing on gun violence. It’s part of an overall push by the White House to halt an uptick of homicides over the first six months of the administration that could grow worse over the summer.

President Joe Biden will unveil his administration’s crime prevention strategy in remarks to be delivered on Wednesday, wading back into the waters of an issue that once defined his political career, but carries significant peril for the Democratic Party.

Mr Biden is no stranger to spirited debates over the best way to prevent crime. As a senator, he had a hand in writing and passing major anti-crime legislation over three decades, including the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. During his 2020 campaign for the presidency, he often touted many parts of that 358-page bill, which included the Violence Against Women Act, a now-expired federal ban on assault weapons, and the Community Oriented Policing Services program, even as he has expressed regret for other provisions that critics now say contributed to the mass incarceration of Black Americans.

Although the president promised to take sweeping actions on gun control while he was a candidate, he has been limited in his ability to enact major gun policy initiatives due to the lack of support from Senate Republicans, ten of whom would have to back any gun bill for it to have a chance of becoming law. GOP senators have also thrown up roadblocks meant to delay confirmation of Mr Biden’s nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a former ATF agent and gun control advocate named David Chipman.

Stymied by Congress, the president has instead turned to executive actions, including orders to strengthen regulation of untraceable “ghost guns” and pistol braces that let handguns be fired with the accuracy of a rifle. The plans Mr Biden will discuss on Wednesday are expected to further focus on addressing gun crimes.

“The president feels a lot – a great deal of the crime we’re seeing – is as a result of gun violence,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. “You can expect he’ll speak to that and his commitment to continuing to address gun violence and gun safety in the country.”

Mr Biden’s push to put a dent in crime rates comes as Republicans continue to attack what they perceive to be lenient attitudes towards crime and criminals by Democrats, despite the president’s history of support for tough-on-crime policies. Crime also remains near historic lows overall despite the recent uptick. Much of the GOP messaging on the subject has taken on racial overtones, with the faces of Black Democratic mayors and other non-white elected officials – often House backbenchers who have spoken about “defunding” police departments.

“The ‘defund the police’ charge was a lie in almost every instance that it was used against people who did not support the idea, but it was devastatingly effective,” said Matt Bennett, a founder of the center-left think tank Third Way.

Mr Bennett said the way for Democrats to avoid being tagged with the most extreme versions of rhetoric popular with activists is for House and Senate leadership to help their members develop a record to run on.

“Biden’s leadership is definitely necessary, but it’s not sufficient,” he explained. “House members need to articulate themselves, whether it’s through votes or statements or things they do in their district…because they can’t just rely on the brand of the party.”

Having a mixed brand on crime policies is nothing new for Democrats, who were often tagged as “soft” on crime by Republicans during the 1980s and 1990s.

But James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s winning 1992 presidential campaign, said Democrats should be the ones going on the attack against a soft-on-crime GOP this time. He cited Republicans’ votes against Mr Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act – which contained billions of dollars to fund local police departments – and their coddling of former President Trump.

“If you have crime in the suites, you’re gonna have crime in the streets,” he said. “Trump had utter contempt for the law … and they protected his lawlessness at every time they could, including on the 6th of January. They should have hearings upon hearings – you can’t be against crime in the streets and be for the insurrection”.

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