Amid crime spike in US, Biden meets police chiefs

Shooting sprees in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia kill dozens during the weekend as US gun violence epidemic rages.

President Joe Biden listens to a question during a meeting on reducing gun violence, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Washington [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

United States President Joe Biden met with US city police chiefs, elected officials and a community intervention expert at the White House on Monday as his administration struggles to address a crime surge driven by rising gun violence in the US.

“We recognise that we have to come together for the first responsibility of democracy: to keep each other safe,” Biden said before the meeting. “And that’s what the American people are looking for when it comes to reducing violent crime and gun violence”.

Biden’s latest White House discussions come amid an epidemic of gun violence in some of the nation’s largest cities. During the weekend of July 10-11 in Chicago, 40 people were shot, 11 fatally.  Three people died and 11 were injured by gun violence in Philadelphia. And in New York City, three teenagers were killed in separate incidents, according to local reports.

Last month, Biden announced a push for revisions to US firearms laws and unveiled measures to cut the availability of firearms used in crimes. The president had announced a series of steps in April to hold firearms dealers accountable for selling guns without completing background checks and will help states use COVID-19 emergency funds to hire more police officers.

Biden’s executive orders signed in April include a push by the Justice Department to better control self-assembled “ghost guns“.

“During the meeting, the president will discuss his crime reduction strategy which gives cities and states historic funding through the American Rescue Plan and a range of tools they can use to improve public safety in their communities including support for community violence intervention programmes, summer employment opportunities, and other proven methods to reduce crime,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who recently won the Democratic nomination and is likely to be the next New York City mayor, along with the mayors of Washington, DC, and San Jose, California, were in the meetings with Biden on Monday.

Police chiefs from Chicago and US mid-size cities Memphis, Wilmington, and Newark also joined Biden with Attorney General Merrick Garland, the US’s top law enforcement official.

Ghost guns on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in 2019 [File: Haven Daley/AP Photo]

The latest rounds of shootings in the US are part of an established trend. Homicides in big US cities were up 30 percent in 2020 and rose another 24 percent in the first half of 2021, the New York Times reported citing unofficial data gathered by criminologists.

Officials are projecting even more violence as the US emerges further from the pandemic shutdowns. Authorities fear there will be more mass shootings targeting large gatherings with semi-automatic or automatic weapons.

Four people were arrested in Denver after a cache of weapons and ammunition were found at a hotel near the venue for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game to be held July 13. So far, investigators have not found any evidence to suggest the group was plotting a mass shooting or other similar attack, an official told The Associated Press.

Biden wants to ban AR-15 style rifles displayed here for sale at a gun store in California [File: Bing Guan/Al Jazeera]

Gun rights in the US are protected by the Constitution, and guns – both legal and illegal – are widely available, making gun control one of the most difficult problems for government officials at all levels.

Biden promised during his campaign that he would take action against gun violence on the first day of his administration, but critics have said his efforts to date have been limited.

Meanwhile, the US Congress is unlikely to act on any material changes to federal gun laws, which already require background checks for most purchases. State laws vary, but generally restrict when and where a gun can be carried, stored or used.

The crime wave could become a political liability for the president and his Democratic Party. Republicans have sought to portray Biden as supportive of calls to “defund the police” that surfaced in Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a policeman in May 2020.

Biden has rejected those calls and asked Congress to boost funding for community policing by $300m. Biden also is asking for $750m in additional funds for the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

White House officials say local communities around the country are using money from Biden’s COVID-19 rescue package to bolster summer programming, create job opportunities in at-risk communities, and fund community violence intervention programmes – all measures aimed at reducing gun violence.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies