The Biden administration is expanding a crackdown on untraceable guns and firearms trafficking along the East Coast “iron pipeline” and elsewhere as police departments across the nation fight surging gun violence that’s left a trail of bloodshed already this year.
President Joe Biden plans to announce the effort during a visit Thursday to New York City, where he’ll also showcase his plan to work with state and local law enforcement to get guns and repeat shooters off the streets. Biden also will stop at a school to meet with violence intervention leaders.
The visit comes as illegal guns flood the streets and gun violence claims scores of lives, including those of police officers. At the same time, Biden, a Democrat, is trying to dispel criticism from the right that he hasn’t been tough enough on crime.
But his modest announcements — expanding on initiatives already underway and offering suggestions for localities on how to spend federal dollars — demonstrate the limits to what he can do when there is no appetite in Congress to pass gun legislation. The strongest effort in recent years failed, even after 20 children and six adults were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Biden also is trying to navigate the complex politics of the moment: finding ways to combat crime while also pushing for greater accountability after killings of Black people by police. The two efforts do not have to be at odds, though they are often billed that way.
All this unfolds against the backdrop of recent polls showing that Americans are increasingly concerned about crime and that Republicans have an advantage over Democrats as the party that would do a better job dealing with it. The White House is pushing back against GOP efforts to paint Biden as soft.
“I think we all agree or should agree that violent crime is a serious problem,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “Our view is that instead of turning this into a political football, we need to be focused from the beginning of the president’s time in office on reducing crime and keeping our communities safe.”
Guns are at the center of the debate as the nation grapples with homicides that spiked nationally in 2020. At least seven 16-year-olds were killed in shootings last year in New York alone. And 32 officers have been shot on the job in 2022, five fatally. Two died in New York in two weeks and two campus officers were killed in Virginia on Tuesday.
Americans purchased a record number of firearms in 2020. Law enforcement officers recovered historically high numbers of firearms last year and are coming across more firearms stripped of serial numbers, making them impossible to trace.
Some early data suggests that the period between when a gun was purchased and used in a crime and recovered by police has shortened, compared with earlier years.
To combat this, the Biden administration is clamping down more on traders of “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that lack serial numbers used to trace them and that are often purchased without a background check.
The Justice Department is also working to stop the movement of guns north along the Interstate 95 corridor from Southern states with lax gun laws. Federal prosecutors will prioritize cases of those who sell or transfer guns used in violent crime and, if Biden’s budget is enacted, get specific agents dedicated to the effort.
Los Angeles and New York are among the cities with federal strike forces aimed at cracking down on gun trafficking. Federal agents are embedded in homicide units in police departments around the country, and the U.S. Marshals Service regularly conducts fugitive sweeps to arrest people with outstanding state or federal warrants.
In May, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will host police executives from across the country to collaborate on solutions to gun violence. But the agency has been without a permanent leader since 2013, and Biden’s first nominee was rejected by Republicans and some moderate Democrats. There’s no sign of a new nominee.
Biden has proposed a large increase in dollars for local community policing programs, and if his social spending agenda were to pass, even more funds would be made available — but that effort is stalled in Congress, too.
He’s also encouraged cities to invest some of their COVID-19 relief money into policing and pushed alternative crime reduction steps such as increased community support and summer jobs for teenagers. He was expected to talk more about this effort on Thursday.
Some states and cities are already acting. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio proposed spending $250 million in federal funds to help first responders fight violent crime and recover from pandemic-related hardship. In Aurora, Colorado, where officers have left the force, those who remain will receive bonuses totaling $6 million.
Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department said more money is important but fully staffed federal law enforcement agencies would also make a big difference.
“The efforts of criminal justice reform need to include the factors feeding into violent crime,” he said. “Our conversations with the White House have been that we recognize the need for criminal justice reform, the role of policing and accountability, but we also need to be similarly invested in bringing police the needed resources to address the increase in crime.”
Biden will be joined in New York by Attorney General Merrick Garland, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain. Once an outspoken critic of his own department and someone who was beaten by police as a teenager, Adams portrayed himself during his campaign as someone who could bridge the divide between the New York Police Department and activists pushing for major change.
Adams’ tough-yet-middle-ground approach is one that Biden and other moderate Democrats have sought out, especially as they try to distance themselves from calls from progressives to shift money away from police departments and into social programs.
During a middle-of-the-night news conference following the shooting late Tuesday of an off-duty officer, Adams said he hoped federal and state lawmakers would give police the help they deserved.
“These officers, every day, put on their uniforms, pin that shield on their chest, put that bulletproof vest on and go back into the streets,” he said. “They still go back and do their jobs. Now it’s time for lawmakers to do their job.”
Price and Balsamo reported from New York. Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.