Monday, February 14, 2022

Reform advocates push Biden for creation of gun violence office

 Many groups advocating for gun reform and violence prevention have pushed President Biden for the creation of an office in the executive branch focused solely on gun violence, reported The Trace.

Advocates say that Biden’s silence on the matter suggests he isn’t prioritizing the crisis. At the same time, the president promised to keep doing everything in his power to “make sure communities are safer.”

The office and its director would be responsible for coordinating a government-wide response to a worsening crisis. It would employ public health strategies, support and evaluate prevention programs, collect much-needed data, and hold other agencies accountable — with the ultimate goal of reducing shootings.

Creating such an office would be relatively easy. It could be accomplished by executive order, without congressional approval, and the idea is not a new one. Presidents — including Biden — have for decades created offices or other specialized units to tackle complex challenges. It’s become a common way for presidents to enact their will, with some clear advantages — as well as mixed results.

Establishing an office to tackle gun violence would mean that the federal government’s disparate groups and staffers devoted to the issue would be forced to collaborate, instead of tackling facets of it in isolation. So far, the Biden administration has suggested it is taking a different approach. It has directed several departments — sometimes separately and sometimes in collaboration — to take steps to address gun violence through enforcementregulation, and funding. It has pointed to Susan Rice, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, as the administration’s point person on gun policy, though her portfolio goes far beyond the issue.

“The President is not standing still while too many innocent lives are being lost each day due to gun violence,” Biden spokesperson Michael Gwin told The Trace in an emailed statement, “so he’s going to continue to push Congress to act on common-sense measures that are currently being blocked by Senate Republicans, and he’ll continue to use the tools at his disposal to take further action, such as what we saw with last week’s announcement.”

Still, advocates are clamoring for an office of gun violence prevention, saying the Biden administration’s efforts are not enough. “There’s nobody overseeing how those different pieces fit into a single puzzle,” said Igor Volsky, the director of Guns Down America, a gun reform advocacy group, who added that he believes Rice’s portfolio is too large to give gun violence the attention it deserves. 

March For Our Lives, a gun reform group largely founded by the survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, has been perhaps the most outspoken proponent of appointing a national director of gun violence prevention.

“We’re very clear on the fact that if no one has gun violence as their chief priority, it’s going to fall to the wayside,” said Zeenat Yahya, policy director for March For Our Lives.

Proponents like Yahya and the 36 members of Congress who wrote a letter to Biden in favor of creating the office say doing so would signal that the federal government is taking the crisis seriously and break down silos among a growing list of federal agencies working on the issue.

The extensive list of players includes the Department of Justice — and its law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — and the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Others, like the departments of Education, State, Veterans Affairs, Labor, Homeland Security, and Commerce, also fund violence prevention, research gun violence, and regulate firearms.

The advocates for a centralized federal response say it’s not a big ask. With a few exceptions, Congress has not challenged the president’s authority to organize and appoint officials in the executive branch. The office could begin, advocates say, by auditing existing grant programs across the federal government to find out what’s working and what isn’t — and then make it easier for nonprofits, cities, and states to access grant money. It could generate sorely lacking data about gun violence and the effectiveness of prevention programs, and research and create public awareness campaigns. With millions in new grants for community violence intervention programs made available over the last year, a centralized place evaluating the data from those programs is increasingly important.

“The major thing is that there is something created that can sustain a comprehensive strategy, and, year-to-year, continue to build on that strategy,” said Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes community-based strategies for violence prevention.

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