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A president who knows that big cities can’t end gun violence alone

Only an aggressive federal approach — saner gun laws and zero tolerance for illegal sales — will reduce the number of crime guns flowing into Chicago and other towns.

President Joe Biden discusses his crime prevention strategy at the White House on Wednesday, June 23.
AP Photos

When it comes to ending the obscene flow of illegal guns into Chicago, our town can never do it alone.

Only a federal crackdown will stem the flow. Only an aggressive federal approach — saner national gun laws and zero tolerance for illegal sales — will reduce the number of guns used to shoot and kill thousands of people in Chicago each year.

Some 60% of guns used in crimes in Chicago can be traced to out-of-state dealers, including 20% from Indiana alone. If the problem is national, crossing state borders, the solution must be, too.

President Joe Biden recognized that reality on Wednesday and earlier this week in rolling out at least a partial strategy for countering gun violence in Chicago and other cities. He announced a handful of common-sense federal initiatives — nothing too politically polarizing — that are sure to be supported by a strong majority of Americans, if not by advocates for “defunding” the police or the extremist National Rifle Association.

At the same time, the cautious character of Biden’s new strategy speaks to the broader problem — good luck with anybody doing anything more. Not so long as a minority of a minority party, the Republican Party, continues to block even the most modest legislation in Congress to regulate our nation’s crazy, free-wheeling trade in guns.

Biden is acting by executive order, rather than writing legislation, because that’s all he’s got.

Firearms strike force

What Chicago should welcome most is Biden’s direction to the Justice Department to create “firearms trafficking strike forces” here and in four other cities, New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. The feds have aggressively investigated local political corruption in recent years, but they’ve shown less interest in prosecuting gun traffickers.

As a companion effort to the federal strike forces, Biden has ordered the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to crack down on gun sellers who even casually flout the law. ATF, the president said, will seek to revoke licenses from gun sellers the very first time they are caught selling a weapon to a person who is not permitted to have one, neglecting to run a required background check or ignoring a federal request to provide trace information about a weapon used in a crime.

“We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets,” Biden said. “It’s an outrage. Has to end.”

ATF has always had the authority to do this, they just haven’t. Not much. The problem historically, we’re told, has been one of under-staffing, which Biden has promised to remedy with an increase in funding.

Better police work

Preventing gun violence is about more than curbing the illegal sale of guns. It’s also about better police work, and this is where Biden on Wednesday went from offending Second Amendment absolutists to offending defund-the-police absolutists — but we’re with him.

We have written repeatedly that policing practices in Chicago, as well as across the country, must be overhauled. That was apparent, to anybody looking, long before George Floyd or Laquan McDonald were killed by the police.

But Chicago faces an existential crisis of gun violence. And it is folly to deny that more and better police work — sophisticated, community-based police work — should be part of the solution.

To that end, we strongly endorse Biden’s decision to allow $350 billion in federal economic stimulus funds to be used to pay for more and better community policing in places that have seen increases in crime during the pandemic.

The head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, John Catanzara, is right when he complains that Chicago’s police force is stretched to the limit, with officers regularly working 12-hour shifts. And tired cops — our words, not his — make for bad cops. Not for nothing is Chicago finding it tough to recruit new officers.

Pieces of a puzzle

Biden’s new anti-violence strategy includes other initiatives, as well, such as more help for people leaving prison so they’ll be less inclined to commit crimes again. As the president said, if you give a new parolee “25 bucks and a bus ticket” — but no job or place to live — you can bet they’ll end up “right where they started.”

There is no one way to curb gun violence. There are pieces of a puzzle. Bringing regulatory sanity to the gun market is one piece. Supporting the best possible police work is another. Supporting proven community-based anti-violence programs is a third.

Biden accepts that, which is refreshing. And though the measures he announced this week are modest, he apparently is willing to rile up critics on both the right and left to get something real done, which is more refreshing still.

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