President Joe Biden pledged Wednesday to go after illegal gun dealers and boost federal funding and support for local law enforcement as homicide rates have spiked in large cities.
"Merchants of death are breaking the law for profit," Biden said, adding the administration will have "zero tolerance" for rogue firearms dealers accountable for violating federal laws.
He said the government also will help states employ more police officers using funds already approved to help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My message to you is this," Biden said, addressing gun dealers who "willfully" break the law. "We will find you and we'll seek your license to sell guns. We'll make sure you can't sell death and mayhem on our streets."
Republicans blasted the measures as government overreach and linked it to efforts to rein in policing.
"I think a lot of it ties back to this whole ‘defund the police' movement and some of the disruption we had in civil society last year," said Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said on Fox News. "And I think that's part of, when you start undermining that basic foundation, you start breaking apart the bonds that hold us together and that's why you see an increase in crime."
The administration will strengthen efforts by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to stop illegal gun trafficking across states, Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland said at the White House, reiterating steps the Department of Justice unveiled Tuesday.
In April, Biden signed executive orders asking the DOJ to crack down on self-assembled "ghost guns." Such orders allow Biden to act quickly without waiting for Congress, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority and Republicans generally oppose gun control legislation.
Gun rights, protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, are among the thorniest political issues in America, where the rate of gun deaths exceeds other wealthy countries.
In 2020 homicides in large U.S. cities rose 30% from a year earlier while gun assaults rose 8% with the fastest rate in big cities including Chicago and Houston, the White House said, citing a report by the nonpartisan research group the Council on Criminal Justice.
Overall the national rate is still far below the national average in the 1970s or 1980s.
The "precipitous rise in homicides coincided with the emergence of mass protests after George Floyd was killed in late May by a police officer in Minneapolis," the report noted, adding there was "no simple connection" between police violence, protests and community violence."
Property crimes, such as burglaries and larcenies, fell significantly in 2020.
Before speaking, Biden and Garland met with the mayors of Baltimore, Maryland and Rapid City, South Dakota, the police chief of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and other experts to discuss community safety measures.
The U.S. Treasury Department released information on how states and localities can tap the $350 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act to respond to violent crime, including by investing in community policing.
The administration faces growing impatience from gun-safety activists that want Biden to act more quickly to combat gun violence after he campaigned on a pledge to act against the "epidemic" on the first day of his administration.
This year, 20,989 Americans died of gun violence through June 23, more than half through suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a research group.
The Republican Party issued a statement saying Biden's Democratic administration "should have stood up to Democrats" who do not sufficiently support law enforcement.
U.S. gun sales soared in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, amid social unrest over police killings of Black people and a contested presidential election. At the time, some experts warned a spike in homicides could be next.
"It's pretty clear that more guns is more death," Harvard University professor David Hemenway, director of the school's Injury Control Research Center, which studies injury prevention, told Reuters in October.
While there is some "preliminary evidence" to support a connection between gun sales and homicides, "more research is required," the Council on Criminal Justice report noted.
As a senator, Biden wrote several major anti-crime packages, including a 1994 bill that contained provisions now viewed by some as an overreaction to the crime spikes in the 1980s and 1990s. Critics say those bills helped lead to mass incarceration of Black Americans, and Biden's involvement became a flashpoint in his 2020 campaign.
Biden has expressed second thoughts about some aspects of the legislation, and he has acknowledged its harmful impact on many Black Americans. But he and his allies still hold out the law's provisions to address domestic violence, ban assault weapons and finance community policing.
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