Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Among them are tougher enforcement policies for federal gun control laws and new guidelines to help cities and states make better use of federal Covid relief funding to combat gun violence, including by hiring police officers.
Biden will also host several big city mayors at the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a meeting about crime prevention. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other stakeholders will also attend.
Homicides spiked by 30% in 2020 over the previous year, according to data provided by the White House, a surge that shows no signs of abating.
In the first quarter of this year, the nationwide homicide rate was 24% higher than it was in the same period of 2020 and 49% higher than two years ago.
Across the country, mayors and police chiefs have struggled to explain what’s behind the rise, but experts point to a perfect storm of factors that collided during the pandemic.
They include a surge in private gun sales, widespread unemployment and Covid stay-at-home orders that left people trapped inside with little to do.
At the same time, protests against police killings of Black people may have diverted police resources away from traditional policing, and eroded public confidence in law enforcement.
And given that policing in America tends to be highly localized, Biden’s options at the federal level are limited.
Shifting ATF priorities
Starting Wednesday, the Justice Department will institute a zero-tolerance policy for federally licensed gun dealers who violate gun sales laws, such as background check requirements.
Instead of issuing warnings, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will now seek to revoke dealer licenses on first offenses.
The move is intended to give new teeth to the enforcement arm of the ATF, which has languished under a previous policy that prioritized compliance over punishment.
Another step Biden will point to on Wednesday is the creation of five new federal strike forces led by the ATF to monitor and intercept firearm smuggling along several “significant gun trafficking corridors” between major cities.
The latest steps are in addition to a package of executive actions to confront gun violence that Biden announced in April.
These included directing the Department of Justice to craft a rule addressing the spread of untraceable “ghost guns,” and to publish an example of “red flag” legislation for states to follow.
Some elements of the Biden administration’s strategy are beyond the president’s control, however, because they require Congress to enact them.
Chief among these is the pending Senate confirmation of David Chipman, Biden’s nominee to lead the ATF.
Chipman is a former ATF agent and an expert on gun trafficking, but his record of supporting expanded firearms restrictions has turned his confirmation into a potent political battle.
With the Senate evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, Biden needs every Democrat to vote to confirm Chipman, so that Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the tie-breaking vote.
But as of Wednesday, two moderate Democrats had not yet committed to supporting Chipman’s confirmation: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema.
Biden’s success or failure in persuading Manchin and Sinema to confirm Chipman is seen by some gun control advocates as a key test of the president’s commitment to the broader gun safety agenda.
American Rescue Plan funds
In addition to strengthening federal gun law enforcement, Biden will also draw attention on Wednesday to the administration’s position that the surge in gun violence is a pandemic-related crisis, according to a White House fact sheet.
Under this designation, that means efforts to combat the surge in gun violence are an allowable use of the $350 billion in state and local pandemic relief funds approved by Congress this spring.
According to updated guidance from the Treasury Department issued Wednesday, American Rescue Plan funds can be used to hire more police officers, pay officers overtime, buy equipment and fund additional “enforcement efforts” to combat the spike in gun violence.
There are a few conditions, however. The first is that the funds must be used to advance “community policing strategies,” as defined by the Justice Department. Likewise, the funds cannot be used to staff police forces above their pre-pandemic levels.
While the funds are narrowly tailored to community policing, the idea that federal relief money is being used to hire more police officers could be a touchy subject among Democrats.
Ever since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing racial justice protests, some members of the Democratic Party’s left flank have backed a movement to reduce the size and scope of police forces, and to replace law enforcement officers with social services counselors and crisis counselors.
Dubbed the “defund the police” movement by protesters who chanted the phrase, the push to fundamentally alter policing in America has divided some parts of the Democratic Party.
Biden opposed the “defund the police” movement during his 2020 presidential campaign, and Democratic legislators who are on the ballot in 2022 have largely avoided using the term.
Instead, Biden is proposing greater public investments in social services, mental health counseling and community violence intervention, in addition to law enforcement.
On Wednesday, Biden will highlight some of these investments alongside the tougher enforcement pieces of his crime prevention plan.
For example, the Department of Labor recently announced an award of $85.5 million to help formerly incarcerated adults and young people find jobs, housing and support as they reenter society.
Biden will also encourage cities and states to access ARP funds for summer job programs that serve young people and for educational enrichment programs.