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Biden’s antiviolence plan calls for Philly to work with other cities fighting rising gun crimes

The city will be one of 15 jurisdictions to participate in the effort, which is one piece of Biden's sprawling initiative to address rising gun violence across the country.

President Joe Biden at the White House last month.
President Joe Biden at the White House last month.Read moreAlex Wong / MCT

Philadelphia will be one of 15 cities joining in an effort to expand and enhance community-based violence interruption programs, federal officials said Wednesday, part of President Joe Biden’s larger plan to address rising gun crimes across the country.

In a program the White House is calling the community violence intervention collaborative, local officials involved in Philadelphia’s burgeoning antiviolence initiatives will meet regularly with peers in cities including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington to share best practices and provide training or technical assistance.

The initiative is the most direct tie to Philadelphia in Biden’s otherwise sprawling attempt to address a nationwide increase in gun crime. Other aspects call for cracking down on firearms dealers who violate the law, seeking to stop the proliferation of so-called ghost guns, and creating new federal law enforcement teams to target gun traffickers around New York City, Chicago, and three other jurisdictions.

In remarks Wednesday, Biden called on Congress to pass legislation expanding background checks and banning assault weapons. In the meantime, he said, his administration is implementing new policies, including making it easier for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke licenses from “shady gun dealers” who fail to run background checks or falsify records.

“If you willfully sell a gun to someone who’s prohibited from possessing it,” he said, “my message to you is this: We’ll find you and we will seek your license to sell guns. We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets.”

» READ MORE: Shootings of multiple victims are becoming commonplace in gun-plagued Philadelphia

Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday said city officials hadn’t seen the details of the plan and still need to have “operational conversations” with federal partners. But he repeated calls for help from the federal government to stem the flow of guns into the city, blaming the spike in violence on the ease with which people can obtain guns.

“Everything that’s going on in this country and every city in this country is abhorrent, and it’s abhorrent because you can get a gun faster than you can get a driver’s license,” he said during a news conference. “There’s something wrong with that scenario.”

Homicides and shootings have been on a steady, years-long rise in Philadelphia. Already this year, 261 people have been killed, police statistics show — 37% more than through the same date last year — and more than 1,000 people have been shot.

If the current pace holds, the city will record more shooting victims by early August than it did in all of 2017.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Biden’s announcement that ATF would target its enforcement of rogue gun dealers “allows us to be more focused with the folks that we see here at the municipal level.”

“Every extra effort that we can get at the federal level I think is helpful,” she said.

Amid the sustained surge in bloodshed, the city has relaunched and begun to reemphasize several community-based antiviolence strategies. In general, they seek to provide resources, alternatives, and counseling to young people who might be at risk of becoming involved in violence. The strategies call for officials and community members outside of law enforcement to deliver those messages, rather than seeking to harshly punish offenders.

Proponents of the approach cite its success in reducing violence in cities such as Oakland, Indianapolis, and Boston. A previous incarnation in Philadelphia, known as Focused Deterrence, coincided with a reduction in shootings in South Philadelphia but has since been criticized for emphasizing criminal consequences for suspects and their associates — the vast majority of whom were young Black men.

Biden’s announcement said participating cities had committed to using federal stimulus money or other public funds to invest in new community-based violence interventions.

As part of the city’s next budget, Kenney pledged an additional $1.3 million for two programs that will also be supported by the federal coordination: Group Violence Intervention and Community Crisis Intervention Program. Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for the mayor, said a total of $6.5 million had been set aside for the programs in the city’s next budget.

The federal partnership will also prioritize investments in hospital-based programs, said Erica Atwood, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety.

For example, she said, Drexel University’s Healing Hurt People program provides trauma services and case management to people under 35 who have been shot or stabbed or have witnessed such attacks.

The Kenney administration said about $155 million of the city’s $5 billion overall budget had been earmarked for antiviolence investments. Still, much of that was a repackaging of existing programs or a result of reclassifying items such after-school programs as violence prevention initiatives.

The Republican National Committee was quick to criticize the effort from the Democratic president, saying Biden had been too slow to act to address the spike in crime, that his tactics unfairly targeted gun owners rather than suspects in crimes, and that he had put too much emphasis on ideas embraced by activists instead of supporting law enforcement.

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.

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