Chicago in spotlight as Biden targets guns with summer anti-crime agenda

Amid rising violence in Chicago and other big cities, Biden’s plan calls for increased enforcement of gun laws along with a greater emphasis on community programs.

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President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland discussing gun crime prevention measures.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: U.S. President Joe Biden, joined Attorney General Merrick Garland, speaks on gun crime prevention measures at the White House on June 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden outlined new measures to curb gun violence including stopping the flow illegal guns and targeting rogue gun dealers. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775670281

Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Faced with rising levels of violent crime in Chicago and most other big cities, President Joe Biden on Wednesday rolled out a plan to stem the surge with increased community-based efforts and stricter enforcement of gun laws.

In stark contrast to when then-President Donald Trump last summer announced he would “send in the feds” to deal with a steep increase in shootings and homicides in Chicago, Biden’s plan promotes local community policing efforts and increased efforts to stem the flow of guns into cities. 

As the COVID pandemic raged throughout 2020, murders in big cities across the U.S. surged 30%, and killings are up a further 25% so far this year, according to a national commission. In Chicago, murders increased by more than 50% last year and are up 4% through the first six months of 2021, police data shows.

Biden’s plan would have the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms devote more resources to tracking guns back to “rogue dealers” and revoke the licenses of those who sell guns that land in the hands of criminals. It also allows cities to spend more of the federal dollars received from the American Recovery Plan on community-based anti-violence programs, community policing and hiring more officers.

Chicago also will be one of 15 cities that will get additional support from the administration and a group of philanthropic organizations — including the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation —  that will provide advice to city leaders and community organizations.

Crime spiked in 2020 amid a series of factors: a pandemic that led to mass unemployment; COVID-19 distancing requirements that limited social services; social unrest that began with the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer; and a record surge in gun sales, according to Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

Sun-Times file

The increased focus on “upstream” factors in gun violence and community-based solutions is a welcome change in policy, Ander said.

“So much of the focus on gun violence is on the end user and the tragic events that surround a shooting,” she said. “Seeing more of a focus on the sources of those weapons is a change.” 

Nationally, gun sales have ballooned to record levels over the last 12 months, based on data on background checks, and experts believe the illegal gun market has seen a similar spike. In Chicago, police have seized more than 3,600 guns so far this year, an increase of 34% compared to the first quarter of 2020, as city police took more than 11,000 guns off the street throughout the year.

The Trump Justice Department last summer launched “Operation Legend” to target violent crime, and directed additional resources to federal law enforcement agencies in Chicago and eight other cities. The operation was dubbed a “resounding success” by former Attorney General William Barr, and led to federal charges against 176 individuals in Chicago, including 130 charged with gun offenses.

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