President Joe Biden announced actions Thursday that aim to pump federal funding into local gun violence prevention programs in the coming months, a distinctive focus on urban areas that also jumps ahead of his administration’s legislative push in the same area.
The action in Washington to address gun violence for years has revolved more around access to guns used in mass shootings at schools or public events, and less around the ways programs can work at an individual level to stop the cycle of violence.
Biden, in an event at the White House Rose Garden on Thursday, called those intervention programs “badly underfunded or not funded at all of late.”
The president last month included $5 billion for those groups in a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, but isn’t waiting for Congress. Republicans have balked at the size and scope of the full pitch.
Biden’s actions made a slate of changes to 26 existing grant programs over four departments to emphasize that kind of direct work with individuals in racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods where a spike in homicides has been the worst.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department would make more than $1 billion in grants available that are tied to programs with proven intervention strategies.
“We all recognize that although law enforcement plays an important role, gun violence is not a problem that law enforcement alone can solve,” Garland said. “Communities are an essential partner, an asset and a source of resources and ideas, those who are closest to the problem are a critical part of solving the problem.”
Change from Obama approach
That approach to gun violence is a change from even eight years ago, when the Obama administration took numerous actions in the aftermath of major mass shootings but did not have a focus on urban violence.
“Then-Vice President Joe Biden was not a big advocate for this, and now President Biden has become the champion for this, and that is why I think there is so much optimism,” Michael McBride, the director of the LIVE FREE campaign who is known as Pastor Mike, said.
“It's been a barn burning, whirlwind effort to kind of bring them along, and they have showed up in a way that I believe is historic,” McBride said.
McBride gave special credit to work done by Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is now White House domestic policy adviser.
“These funds will be targeted to the most disinvested, troubled, distressed neighborhoods in the country,” McBride said. “They can't be raided by the police departments, by big box nonprofits.”
The changes are small but could make a big difference to programs as early as this summer. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will encourage those who got part of $5 billion grants through the March 2020 coronavirus relief law to use some to support community programs that combat violence stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Special emphasis’ on intervention
The Justice Department will “place a special emphasis” on such community intervention programs in the $484 million it will dole out in criminal justice funding to states and local governments. The department also will give preference to law enforcement agencies that partner with community programs when handing out $156 million to hire entry-level law enforcement officers.
Biden pitched these grants as a way to save taxpayer dollars as well as lives, citing a study that put the cost of gun violence in America at $280 billion.
Along with funding roads and bridges, Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal included provisions that would give the first significant federal funding for gun violence prevention programs and keep it going for eight years.
Thursday, Biden announced the grant program changes along with actions that follow a more traditional approach to gun violence. The Justice Department will propose rules to stop so-called “ghost guns” — kits that allow the buyer to finish a firearm that does not have a serial number to track — and to restrict stabilizing braces that can make pistols more like rifles.
But Biden called on Congress to take the bigger steps, such as House-passed bills to expand background checks for gun sales.
“It’s long past time that we act,” Biden said.