WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland traveled Thursday to New York City, where the lives of two police officers were claimed in recent shootings, as the administration unveiled a new initiative to combat gun violence.
A senior administration official told reporters that the White House is focusing on ghost guns, which are homemade guns that lack a serial number, making them difficult for law enforcement to trace.
“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said, seeming to take a swipe at progressive Democrats and activists who have criticized police misconduct. “It’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors and the community needs you.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked while on the way to New York about media reports that Biden is stuck between civil rights advocates pressing for police accountability and police organizations that want more public safety funding.
Psaki told reporters that Biden has a decades-long record for fighting crime.
“He has never been an advocate for defunding the police, as you know, but his record on these issues long precedes his time as president,” she said.
The phrase “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for Republican politicians hoping to cast Democrats as soft on on crime. The defund the police movement, which gained traction in the wake of the national outcry over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, generally called for redirecting parts of police budgets to social service programs.
Interviewed by KLAS in Las Vegas the month after Floyd’s killing, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Joe Lombardo, now a Republican candidate for Nevada governor, said “defunding, I can support, in some aspects.”
“What I mean by that,” Lombardo continued, is that “over time, society has asked police to expand their resumes … in particular mental health, and homelessness and hunger, the police are expected to take care of those particular issues. And it’s real easy. The public calls 911. When there’s a question on how to handle a particular situation like the ones I described, you dial 911 and the police have to handle it. And we don’t necessarily have the resources or the training or the ability to handle a lot of those things.”
“So if they want to defund, to develop teams per se, or social workers, that type of profession to address those type of calls, I’m in full support of it,” Lombardo said in that June 2020 interview.
Now his campaign website says “Defunding the police is a radical, left-wing effort focused on improving the lives of criminals while putting the rest of us at greater risk. Joe will fight any effort to defund the police.”
Ghost gun initiative
Biden’s visit to New York was spurred by the deaths of two police officers who last month were shot and killed while on duty. Biden and Garland, along with Eric Adams, the newly sworn in mayor of New York, and Gov. Kathy Hochul, also attended a Gun Violence Strategies Partnership meeting to discuss community violence intervention programs with local leaders.
“It’s time to fund community policing to protect the community,” Biden said.
Adams, who is a former police officer, said that during a visit to the White House he asked Biden to “speak with our city, state and federal law enforcement personnel, so we could have a 9/11 response to this violence.”
The Justice Department launched a national ghost gun enforcement initiative Thursday “designed to prevent these unserialized firearms from being used to commit crimes, including by prioritizing bringing federal charges against criminal use of these weapons,” according to the administration’s fact sheet.
The agency found that from January 2016 to December 2020, there were nearly 30,000 privately made firearms — or ghost guns — that were reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives by law enforcement.
“That is why we are strengthening our firearms tracking strike forces to disrupt the pipeline that floods our community with illegal guns,” Garland said.
For that initiative, the agency will work to train prosecutors on ghost gun crimes as well as designate a ghost gun coordinator in each Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office to serve as a resource for local and state law enforcement officers and to answer questions about crimes that involve an unmarked firearm.
The agency said it is also working to finalize a proposed rule to help curb the flood of untraceable guns.
The Nevada Legislature in 2021 passed a bill to prohibit ghost guns, however the primary provisions banning possession and purchasing of the weapons were struck down by a state district court judge in December.
Psaki said that the administration also wants to ensure that communities have the appropriate funds to help reduce violence in their communities. She mentioned Biden’s proposal to “double federal support for community policing with $300 million more for cities, plus another $200 [million] more for community violence intervention program.”
Biden in his budget for fiscal 2022 requested $9.4 billion to be allocated to reduce violent crime and gun violence and for police — an 8.9% increase from the fiscal 2021 budget. Biden also called on Congress to increase funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I’m confident that if we fund these programs, we will see a reduction in violence,” Biden said.
The Justice Department in April 2021 announced that it would also be publishing model “red flag” legislation for states. The bill would allow courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is distressed.
Nevada Current editor Hugh Jackson contributed to this story.
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