Biden Doesn’t Have an Answer to America’s Crime Spike

The president has few levers he can pull on to reduce the country’s murder rate.

Joe Biden speaking at the White House with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln behind him
Kevin Dietsch / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Joe Biden knows he needs to appear to be doing something about crime.

Murder rates around the country rose precipitously in 2020, and in many cities the increases have continued into 2021. But the president has few levers to affect crime quickly, and faces political hazards in every direction. Biden has championed police reform, and many progressive Democrats have pushed for sharp reductions in police budgets.

The result was an unsatisfying announcement yesterday, delivered by a meandering Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, about new federal efforts to fight gun violence.

The public is alarmed. While crime remains lower than it was at its 1990s peak, a recent poll conducted by Leger in collaboration with The Atlantic finds that six in 10 Americans view crime in the country as a major issue. The problem, for Biden, is that there’s simply not much the federal government can do: The fastest initiatives seem unlikely to have much effect, while others have more potential but are unlikely to come to fruition soon. Law enforcement in the United States is largely conducted on the local and state levels, with a limited federal role. Federal efforts at crime fighting can have unintended consequences, as the huge increase in incarceration that followed the 1994 crime bill demonstrated.

One thing Washington does effectively is shovel money at a problem, a brute-force way to fight, for example, a pandemic-induced economic downturn. Crime doesn’t necessarily work the same way. What drives crime—both up, as is the case now, and down, as occured from the ’90s until recently—is not well understood. Money can be used to, for example, hire more police officers, but training cops takes time, and besides, many departments are already struggling to fill open, funded positions, according to a survey from the Police Executive Research Forum.

Writing checks to hire cops might be politically untenable for Biden. Although the president pointedly distanced himself from Democrats who have called for defunding the police, a huge increase in federal funding to departments would likely spark an insurrection on his left flank, at a moment when the president is already struggling to hold together his fragile coalition on voting rights and infrastructure—not to mention trying to nurture a bipartisan police-reform bill.

Biden focused his efforts on gun violence instead. On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced the creation of new gun-trafficking strike forces in five major cities, with the goal of stemming the illegal flow of guns.

“With these strike forces, local and federal law enforcement and prosecutors are going to be able to better coordinate the prosecution of illegal gun trafficking across city and state lines, so illegal guns sold from the back door of a gun shop in Virginia don’t end up at a murder scene in Baltimore,” Biden said yesterday.

This makes political sense: Most Democrats agree on at least modest increases in gun control, and large portions of the population support measures such as universal background checks. Stricter enforcement against illegal gun trafficking is simple enough, because it relies on existing laws. Moreover, contra the familiar NRA slogan, guns do kill people; firearms consistently account for a large majority of murders in the United States, and there’s evidence of a big recent jump in the number of guns that Americans own. Other categories of crime have not increased the way murders have over the past year.

Whether this focus on firearms will really affect crime is a different question. Criminologists don’t agree on the specific causes and mechanisms of the recent increase in murders, which coincided with the coronavirus pandemic and especially with protests against police violence last summer. Fighting the root causes requires understanding what they are, but in the meantime, Biden’s focus on gun trafficking might have limited effect.

“What it’s doing is trying to address the supply, and it’s not doing a thing about the demand,” Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal-justice professor at Temple University, told me. “We have a vicious cycle. Guns on the street are fueling shootings, and more shootings are fueling more guns on the street.”

The federal government can only go after guns that are being sold illegally. But most guns are purchased and owned legally. Biden would surely be happy to sign more sweeping gun controls, but Republicans in Congress continue to block any new legislation, and previous Democratic presidents have already tried many of the most promising executive actions.

The most intriguing element of Biden’s announcement is a push for community violence-intervention (CVI) programs. While there are a range of designs for these programs, some of them have shown impressive efficacy in reducing gun violence. Mark Obbie wrote about the promising results of such programs in stopping shootings in The Atlantic in 2019.

Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and a former Justice Department official, has championed such efforts, and told me he was cautiously optimistic about the Biden initiatives.

Yesterday’s announcement “features much-needed federal resources for law enforcement, community-based service providers, the hiring of returning citizens, and more,” he said. “Partnership across sectors and constituencies will continue to be critical in the fight against gun violence.”

Making CVI programs work requires time, money, and the right partners. The White House has told local governments that they can use money from the American Rescue Plan, the stimulus bill passed in March, for CVI programs. Biden has also asked Congress to allocate $5 billion for these programs. But even if Congress agreed, that money wouldn’t be available in time to mitigate the annual summer surge in violence.

Biden has been careful not to overpromise, warning, “There is no one answer that fits everything.” That’s certainly the case, but it’s unlikely to absolve the Biden administration in the public’s mind, during what may be a very violent summer ahead.