'It has to end': Biden targets illegal gun sales, rogue dealers in strategy to combat rising crime

Joey Garrison
USA TODAY
  • Biden announced a "zero-tolerance policy" for rogue gun dealers.
  • The president encouraged states to use Covid-19 relief funding on public safety efforts.
  • Republicans blame a rise in crime on calls to "defund the police" from activists.

WASHINGTON –  President Joe Biden launched a new crime prevention strategy Wednesday in a push to take on soaring gun violence as Republicans blame a rise in crime on calls from progressive activists to cut police funding. 

In a speech from the White House, Biden announced a "zero-tolerance policy" for rogue gun dealers and a new focus by the Justice Department to try to stop the illegal sale of firearms.

Biden also emphasized that cities and states can use their portions of $350 billion in direct aid from Biden's COVID-19 rescue plan, approved by Congress in March, on public safety efforts, including hiring more police officers.

"This is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement or our communities," Biden said. 

The president's push comes as he has been unable to gain Republican support in Congress to pass sweeping gun control legislation. Republicans plan to seize on the crime surge – and the "defund the police" mantra of some liberals – to attack Democrats in a bid to take back control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

Homicides have increased by 24% over last year, and gun-related deaths are up 21%. Public safety experts fear gun violence will get even worse this summer, when it historically spikes with the arrival of warm weather. The start of summer coincides with relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in most states after months of shutdowns. 

More:Gun used in Odessa shooting shows risk when chain of illegal sale starts with home-based hobbyist dealers

The White House has pushed back at Republican efforts to pin the crime wave on Biden, stressing that the increase in gun violence started five years go and accelerated over the past 18 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some cities have reported spikes in other forms of violence, Biden has pointed to guns as the most serious threat. Burglary, larceny and drug offense rates nationally were down over the first four months of 2021 from last year.

"We've been seeing it in our country for far too long, and it has spiked since the start of the pandemic over a year ago," Biden said, acknowledging that the summer rise in crime may be "more pronounced" this year. "I've been at this a long time, and there are things we know that work – that reduce gun violence and violent crime."

Biden pushes COVID-19 rescue funds for police hiring 

Biden's plan includes a new Justice Department policy that will allow the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke federal licenses of gun dealers the first time they violate federal law. Violations could include selling firearms to a prohibited buyer, failing to run required background checks or falsifying firearm transaction forms or other records. 

A USA TODAY/The Trace investigation this month found that ATF inspectors routinely document violations at shops around the country, only to be overruled by higher authorities to issue warning letters instead of revoking licenses. 

"We'll find you and we will seek your license to sell guns," Biden said of rogue sellers. "We'll make sure you can't sell death and mayhem on our streets. It's an outrage. It has to end, and we'll end it. Period."

Biden called for additional federal money to hire more ATF inspectors and agents. He said the ATF also will begin publicizing inspection findings and enforcement actions after the USA TODAY/The Trace investigation exposed that such information wasn't accessible.

The Justice Department plans to target the illegal flow of firearms across state lines through the creation of five new firearms strike forces. Authorities will coordinate with the ATF and cities and states to crack down on significant gun trafficking corridors that have diverted guns into New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and Washington, D.C. 

"So illegal guns sold from the backdoor of a gun shop in Virginia don't end up in a murder scene in Baltimore," Biden said. 

More:Legislators call for ATF to crack down on problem gun dealers, citing USA TODAY/The Trace investigation

A rack of rifles are shown inside a New Jersey gun shop in July 2020. A two-year set of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives records found many of the weapons dealers recommended to lose their licenses instead kept them. The New Jersey shop was not cited in the records reviewed by reporters. (Thomas P. Costello/Asbury Park Press)

Biden reframed some COVID-19 rescue funds as public safety dollars. The Treasury Department issued new guidance clarifying that cities and states can use their share of direct aid, which they started receiving in May, on hiring police officers and other law enforcement officials, prosecuting gun traffickers, and new technology to respond to gun violence. Public schools can use their share of $122 billion in rescue money on community violence intervention programs and other public safety strategies. 

"Some might say that the other party was for 'defunding the police,'" said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, turning the go-to Republican attack around by noting no Republicans voted for Biden's rescue package.

More:After repeated ATF warnings, gun dealers can count on the agency to back off; sometimes firearms flow to criminals

Biden also announced a new partnership with 15 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit, to expand community violence intervention programs with federal and philanthropic dollars. Other parts of his strategy include Labor Department programs to expand summer employment and programs for youth and help formerly imprisoned people enter the workforce. 

President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the State Dining room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 23, 2021, to discuss his gun crime prevention strategy.

Gun deaths up 21% over last year

Through the first 172 days of 2021, gun violence killed 9,420 Americans, an average of 55 people a day, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a research nonprofit. The figures include homicides and accidental gun deaths but not suicides.

That's about 21% more gun deaths than the 7,795 gun deaths at this time in 2020 – which turned into the deadliest year in at least two decades. Homicides rose in the country's largest cities by 30% in 2020. There here have been 296 mass shootings in 2021, compared with 218 at this time in 2020.

"It is steamrolling out of control right now," said Mark Bryant, executive director of the Gun Violence Archive. "We're running well over a month ahead, and I'm seeing nothing suggesting we're slowing down. In fact, it seems it's the opposite."

Family members mourn at the scene where their loved ones were killed early Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Biden has called gun violence a "public health epidemic" and a "national embarrassment."

His latest gun violence efforts build off his initial actions in April to strengthen regulations on "ghost guns" and stabilizing braces that make firearms more lethal. Biden has called for Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban and pass legislation to close loopholes in gun background checks, but the legislative proposals face resistance from Republicans in the evenly divided Senate.

"I never give up hope," Biden said after his remarks when pressed about the slim prospects of Congress passing an assault weapons ban.

More:'We have to act': Biden calls on Congress to move fast on background checks, assault weapon ban after Boulder shooting

Biden delivered his remarks after meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland and local officials about the rising crime. The group included New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Rapid City, South Dakota, Mayor Steve Allender, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

In St. Louis, 96% of all homicides in 2021 have came from firearms, and in New York City, shooting incidents are up 77% from March 2020 to March 2021.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said the increase in gun violence spans cities and suburbs alike, and all regions. He expects it will increase in the summer when more people go out, party and consume alcohol. 

"I don't know if it will be worse than last year. Last year was pretty horrific," he said of the summer months. "Even if it is only as bad as last year, that's really, really bad."

Police officers investigate a shooting in Times Square on May 8 in New York City.

Webster said the gun violence spike predated the pandemic but picked up when the spread of the coronavirus last spring led to soaring unemployment, closed schools and upended lives. He said it accelerated even more amid the national unrest after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis killed by a white police officer, setting off nationwide protests.

Besides these two major events, he said another factor for the spike in gun violence is more fundamental: More Americans are carrying guns. Arrests for illegal gun possession are also up over last year.

"Somewhat perversely, the actions that people take to protect themselves as individuals collectively does the opposite," Webster said. "And I think that's an important part of where we are right now."

Republicans look to make crime a top issue in 2022

For Biden, the rise in crime also has political implications. 

Republicans have long attacked Democrats as being soft on crime. And in the 2020 election, Republican candidates worked aggressively to tie Democrats to the "defund the police" slogan of progressive activists – even though Biden and many Democrats said they didn't support the movement.

"No matter what President Biden says," said Scott Sloofman, staff director of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "it’s crystal-clear to Americans that senior members of his administration and the Democratic Party as a whole have been at the vanguard of the movement to defund police departments across the country."

More:Is defunding the police 'Obamacare 2.0'? Democrats face challenge with voters heading into 2022

Republicans plan to double down on that line of attack in the 2022 midterms.

Steven Law, president and CEO of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell, told USA TODAY that Republicans will argue "defund the police" has turned from a rhetorical slogan to an active policy pursuit by some Democrats. Republican Senate candidates will couple that with anxiety about rising violent crime.

"You have an issue that has been completely quiet for decades, and all of a sudden, people are noticing it in their communities and feeling very personally threatened by it," Law said. "You will see political problems the Democrats suffered in 2020 and see it significantly amplified, because it's now a bigger issue than ever."

Contributing: Phillip M. Bailey and Nick Penzenstadler. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.