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Biden Gun Proposal Stands a Chance, If It’s Not About Guns (1)

May 27, 2021, 8:46 AMUpdated: May 27, 2021, 1:21 PM

A proposal from President Joe Biden to address a surge in firearm-related deaths nationwide may stand a chance of garnering Republican support—if he can convince them it isn’t gun control.

As part of his initial infrastructure plan, Biden asked Congress in March for an extra $5 billion for community violence prevention programs over eight years—a proposal that longtime program leaders say would be the most significant federal investment in their efforts ever. Attorney General Merrick Garland also included Justice Department support for these programs in his Wednesday memo to agency staff on handling a rise in violent crime.

Influential Senate Republicans say they are open to the idea, so long as officials don’t frame it as anti-gun, reduce the amount of spending, and separate it from the president’s broader infrastructure pitch.

“I’m not aware of the proposal yet, so I’d want to see it before I responded to it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference. “I’d want to know specifically where those dollars are being directed and how they’ll be spent. But generally, if there are ways we can prevent violence, we certainly want to do that.”

Biden’s proposed remedy targets gun-related deaths in underserved urban neighborhoods. The programs commonly pair disadvantaged young people and hospitalized gunshot victims with mentors with similar life experiences. The mentors, known as credible messengers, connect participants with social services, counsel them against retaliation, and aim to stem conflicts that could lead to more violence.

The demand for a solution to gun-related deaths rose dramatically during the pandemic: 2020 was a record year for gun homicides in the U.S.

More than 19,000 people died from homicides nationwide, an increase of 26% from the year before, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Homicides accounted for nearly half of all gun-related deaths in 2020, while mass shootings made up only a fraction.

“A lot of stuff is going on with people being closed in, forced to be around each other,” said Shneaqua Purvis, who manages a Brooklyn, New York, violence prevention program site and lost her sister to a stray bullet nearly 20 years ago. “Parents arguing, people losing their jobs. They’re finding peace in something that’s not peaceful at all.”

For the president, it could be the most practical path forward, at least in the short term, on his gun violence agenda. Biden’s other plans are running up against the dueling realities of an evenly divided Senate, where he needs Republican votes to advance legislation, and the limits of his authority.

State Funding Mixed

With a few exceptions, the federal government has historically stayed out of funding gun violence programs. Biden’s proposal, while involving a small amount of money compared to the trillions the federal government spends annually, would begin to reverse that. The president’s budget request, scheduled for release on Friday, will likely include whether agencies tasked with public health, crime, or a mix would manage the funding.

When trauma surgeon Rochelle Dicker started piloting violence intervention techniques at her California hospital in the early 2000s, she paid for a case manager herself. That case manager visited shooting victims in Dicker’s hospital to connect them with employment opportunities and provide emotional support.

Dicker hired the case manager to address the underlying social circumstances, such as racial inequity, unstable housing, and poverty, that she said put the patient at risk of a gun injury in the first place. Homicide is the leading cause of death for Black men under age 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I was just putting really extensive Band-Aids on people and sending them out to the same risk factors that brought them to my operating room table,” Dicker said by phone.

Later on, then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom (D) added funding for the program to his budget, and foundations and local health departments also started providing dollars. Filling out grant applications now takes hours of the program coordinator’s time. The only federal funding Dicker ever received was from the CDC more than a decade ago.

As California governor, Newsom proposed providing an extra $200 million over three years for violence prevention, a plan that local program organizers called “historic.”

In Atlanta, where 2020 was the deadliest year for homicides in two decades, the mayor set aside $5 million from city’s stimulus windfall for violence prevention programs. In Maryland, the Senate overrode the governor’s veto of a bill to provide $3 million per year to violence prevention efforts.

But in Washington state, the governor delayed setting up a new Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, in addition to other programs, for months because it wasn’t clear what the pandemic’s impact would be on the state’s budget, said Kate Kelly, the office’s director.

The office is now expecting a boost this year from the Justice Department, after the Trump administration tried to withhold crime-prevention money from the state for its refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

Federal Support

Community violence prevention programs are already eligible for an array of U.S. Justice Department grants, including the department’s awards for crime prevention and crime victims. Congress set aside $14 million in fiscal 2021 for community-based violence prevention, up from $8 million the year before.

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top Republican on the chamber subcommittee that determines Justice Department funding, supported the increase. However, he wouldn’t back an additional $5 billion over eight years as Biden has proposed, a spokesman said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, said he’s unsure that $5 billion is necessary—and he’d want to know exactly what Biden plans to spend it on.

“Is it considered an anti-gun move?” Grassley said when asked about Biden’s proposal.

But he said, “It sounds to me like something I’d support. The problem he’s trying to solve I think is a major problem and we need to do something. Whether his approach is the exact approach, I don’t know.”

While he waits for Congress to consider his proposal, Biden in early April broadened the federal funding available to community violence programs. Asked in May about the administration’s response to a surge in violent crime, Jen Psaki, the president’s press secretary, responded by highlighting the $5 billion proposal.

It’s “a pot of money from which he can draw to show that he’s serious with respect to gun control,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America. Hammond said his group would likely oppose such funding because he believes the administration could use it to restrict firearm ownership.

This is not the first time that Washington has considered a proposal to funnel more money toward these programs. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill (S. 2671) in late 2019 to direct $90 million toward the Justice Department and the National Institutes of Health for gun violence prevention programs and research. The bill never received a floor vote. Neither did a companion measure (H.R. 4836) in the House.

Booker is now a lead negotiator for Democrats on a police reform bill, a potential home for violence prevention program funding. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is representing Republicans in those negotiations, hadn’t read Biden’s proposal as of mid-May and declined to comment on it.

“There’s a whole lot of things that are not necessarily bad ideas that they want to lump into an infrastructure package, but I think we need to get back to basics,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a senior Republican on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee. “There are other needs. I don’t discount that. But to try to disguise them as infrastructure in order to move it, I don’t think is being completely honest.”

Proving It Works

The White House has said it wants the $5 billion to go to “evidence-based” violence prevention strategies. But that evidence has been difficult to come by, in part because the CDC was effectively banned by Congress for nearly 25 years from funding research into gun violence.

Trauma surgeon Michel Aboutanos, who started a hospital-based violence prevention program at Virginia Commonwealth University, has found plenty of available funding over the years to study violence, but not how to prevent gun violence specifically. A Mount Sinai Hospital study published before the CDC ban ended found that in relation to mortality rates, gun violence was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls.

At the Justice Department, which has historically funded the programs itself, the president has yet to nominate someone to lead the office. That person will determine whether the distribution of funding is successful, said David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and a contributor to Oakland’s gun violence reduction strategy.

Cities have historically mismatched their violence reduction strategy with their goals. One example: Funding programs that target children and teens likely won’t have an immediate effect on gun-related deaths because homicide victims tend to be in their mid- to late-20s, Muhammad said.

“That’s not who is shooting people, or even being shot, despite the high-profile media report you remember of the 12-year-old,” Muhammad said.

Mel Thomas, a participant in an anti-violence program known as Cure Violence in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis, first met his program mentor outside a restaurant seven months ago.

Thomas now visits him daily after getting off work at a warehouse company and often accompanies him while he walks around the neighborhood talking to residents. He said that his mentor helped him add more structure to his days and he’s now planning to sign up for carpentry classes in a few weeks, with the help of the program.

“I just only wish that they had more people out here in the streets doing what they do,” Thomas said.

(Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg, who serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board.)

(Adds comment from program participant Mel Thomas in final three paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at crozen@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com