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Attorney General Merrick Garland is heading to his hometown of Chicago on Thursday to signal the Biden administration’s commitment to reining in the surge of gun violence plaguing many of America’s biggest cities.
Garland is set to unveil a set of new gun “strike forces” aimed at shutting down the pipelines of guns being illegally trafficked into urban centers, but his visit is sure to be received with some skepticism as just the latest policy pronouncement from Washington. Shootings in the Windy City have seemed out of control for years, particularly in the summer.
Last weekend, 56 people were shot in Chicago; 11 of them fatally. Over the Fourth of July weekend, at least 108 people were shot with at least 17 people killed, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"We are redoubling our efforts as ATF works with law enforcement to track the movement of illegal firearms used in violent crimes," Garland said in a statement. "These strike forces enable sustained coordination across multiple jurisdictions to help disrupt the worst gun trafficking corridors."
The anti-violence effort is also politically important to President Joe Biden and White House officials, who are worried that talk from liberal activists about “defunding the police” could lead to perceptions that the administration isn’t doing much to crack down on deadly violence.
Justice Department officials who briefed reporters on the administration’s plans Wednesday said they’re acutely aware that — despite more than a decade of announcements of new federal strategies, projects, operations and task forces — the rate of shootings remains stubbornly high. And while officials didn’t rule out surging personnel or resources to Chicago and other cities with major gun violence problems, they say a new approach will be required to get better results.
“The goal of this coordination effort is to disrupt the entire trafficking network, from the place where guns originate, where they travel through other jurisdictions, to the places where they're ultimately used to commit violent crime,” said one DOJ official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is not a short-term infusion of resources. Rather, it's a long term coordinated, multi-jurisdictional strategy to ensure that disrupting these trafficking patterns remains a priority as long as necessary to address the problem.”
An official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that in the past, prosecutors in the “source” jurisdictions were sometimes reluctant to bring criminal cases based on false statements or omissions in gun-buying paperwork, even though such weapons sometimes turned up at crime scenes hundreds or thousands of miles away. The new effort is aimed at formalizing connections between the “source” and “market” jurisdictions to ensure that interrupting the flow of guns to places like Chicago remains a high priority.
“In that source area, a prosecutor may dismiss that sort of violation as a paperwork violation because they do not feel the effects of it,” said the ATF official, who also declined to be named.
Last month, Garland announced the plan for the strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. He’s expected to visit ATF headquarters on Thursday before traveling to Chicago to meet with city police leaders. On Friday, Garland is scheduled to spend time with federal law enforcement and prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The main source areas for guns used in crimes in Chicago are usually downstate Illinois and Indiana, the Justice official who briefed reporters said. California’s big cities see an influx from Arizona and Nevada, while guns arrive in Washington from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the official added.
Both the idea of dedicated gun task forces and the notion of reducing violence by prosecuting gun-buyers are far from new.
In 2014, ATF set up a Chicago Crime Gun Intelligence Center to coordinate with state and local police.
And in March 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent federal prosecutors across the country a directive to prioritize so-called "lie and try” cases. The department later reported a spike in the number of prosecutions for lying on gun-buying background check forms .
Last summer, then-Attorney General William Barr swept Chicago into an anti-violent-crime effort called Operation Legend. He later credited the program for a drop in homicides in the city.
Still, Chicago wound up with about 770 murders for the year, the highest number since 2016. About 410 homicides have been reported this year.