WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Wednesday that states could draw from $350 billion in federal stimulus money to shore up police departments and vowed to crack down on gun dealers who fail to run background checks, as the White House seeks to combat the alarming rise in homicide rates in America’s cities.
Mr. Biden’s speech made clear that he intends to approach crime prevention by investing in, rather than defunding, the police — wading into a national debate about whether the government should give police departments more resources, or spend the money on mental health and other social services instead.
The president tried to appeal to both sides on Wednesday, saying from the White House that “this is not a time to turn our backs on law enforcement or our communities.”
Under Mr. Biden’s new plan, state and local governments will be allowed to use their designated $350 billion of coronavirus relief funds for programs such as hiring police officers to prepandemic levels, paying overtime for community policing work and supporting community-based anti-violence groups. City governments struggling with high crime will be able to go even further, hiring even more officers than they had before the pandemic.
The money is not new spending, but the administration is for the first time encouraging states to use the funds for expanding policing efforts and crime prevention efforts.
The funds can also be used for summer jobs for young people and organizations that aim to intervene with at-risk youths before they commit violence, a nod to criminal justice advocates who have called for political leaders to address the societal factors that drive crime.
With Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Biden aimed to blunt criticism from Republicans who say he is soft on crime. But he also tried to bridge the two flanks of his party: centrist Democrats alarmed by the spike in crime in cities and progressives who are pushing systemic changes to police departments that have long been accused of racial discrimination.
Mr. Biden also said he was directing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke the licenses of gun dealers “the first time that they violate federal law” by failing to run background checks.
Previously, sellers often received repeated warnings before their licenses were pulled. And in some cases, the A.T.F. has been accused of overruling recommendations by their own inspectors and allowing sellers to keep their licenses.
“These merchants of death are breaking the law for profit,” said Mr. Biden, who appeared alongside Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “They’re selling guns that are killing innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable.”
Mr. Biden used the moment to call for Congress to pass legislative measures that would close background check loopholes, restrict assault weapons and repeal gun manufacturers’ immunity from lawsuits.
“Folks, this shouldn’t be a red or blue issue,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s an American issue. We’re not changing the Constitution; we’re enforcing it.”
Criminal justice experts and law enforcement officials said the federal government is limited in how much it can combat crime in American cities, because local governments and police departments bear primary responsibility.
But they said supporting states with additional funds and federal law enforcement to target illegal gun sales was crucial to lowering crime.
“It will help,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law-enforcement think tank. But, he cautioned, “if people are looking for a magic solution to violent crime, it’s not going to come from the federal government.”
The Biden administration also announced this week that the Justice Department would start five “strike forces” to combat gun trafficking in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco area and Washington, D.C.
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said focusing on gun trafficking was a “tried and true strategy.”
“The key is having the resources to sustain it over time,” Mr. Pasco said. “To have a lasting impact you’ve got to have lasting effort.”
Overall crime numbers remained down during the coronavirus pandemic, although homicides surged in almost every American city in 2020. In Chicago and several other cities, last year was the worst year for killings since the mid-1990s.
Mr. Biden has walked a cautious line on crime, trying to balance calls for a law enforcement overhaul while not alienating moderate voters.
He included in his budget request for the 2022 fiscal year $2.1 billion for the Justice Department to address gun violence, an increase of $232 million from the previous year. The funds include grants for local governments, programs that improve background checks and other anti-crime strategies.
White House officials said the actions announced on Wednesday were meant to build on steps the administration took in April after two mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado. Mr. Biden had directed the Justice Department to curb the spread of “ghost guns,” made from pieces with no serial numbers from kits that can be bought without background checks.
But the administration is still facing calls to pass meaningful gun legislation that would restrict assault weapons. And Mr. Biden’s nominee to lead the A.T.F. has yet to be confirmed — a significant hurdle.
If confirmed, Mr. Biden’s nominee, David Chipman, would become only the second permanent director of the A.T.F. since the position became subject to Senate confirmation 15 years ago. He would inherit an agency seriously depleted by the National Rifle Association’s campaign to undermine the bureau.
Republicans, who have seized on the “defund the police” rallying cry to attack Democrats as weak on public safety, ramped up criticism on Wednesday. Mr. Biden has said he opposes defunding the police.
“President Biden’s failure to hold his own party accountable for defunding police is endangering communities and triggering a spike in crime across the country,” said Emma Vaughn, the press secretary for the Republican National Committee.
Mr. Biden has a long history with crime legislation. As a senator, he championed a 1994 crime bill that many experts say fueled mass incarceration, prompting questions during his presidential campaign about his commitment to overhauling the criminal justice system. The administration has continued to defend some aspects of the bill that banned assault weapons and supported drug courts for first-time offenders.
A bipartisan compromise on a national policing overhaul has stalled in Congress, despite Mr. Biden urging lawmakers to reach a deal by May 25, the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last summer.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the president was trying to bolster police departments while also moving ahead with reform efforts.
“He does not feel they are conflicting,” Ms. Psaki said on Tuesday, adding that residents of American cities suffering from gun violence do want to hear what the president is doing to address crime in their communities.
That belief is shared by Quentin James, who runs an organization dedicated to electing African American officials.
“Black people are nervous about the crime spike and how to deal with that,” said Mr. James, the president of Collective PAC. But he said he wanted to “deal with that in a way where we’re not just doubling police budgets.”
Officials throughout the country are confronting the best ways to address rising crime. In the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, a former police officer, has a significant lead after making public safety a main focus of his campaign.
Democrats in Washington made a point to funnel money to the party’s pick to fill Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s House seat in a special election in New Mexico as she faced accusations from Republicans that she was soft on law and order.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago has said she is prioritizing reducing violence over the summer by focusing resources on more than a dozen high-crime pockets of the city.
In Jackson, Miss., a rise in violent crime has stoked anger and resentment over a sense of neglect and pushed city leaders and activists to demand an investment in resources that extends beyond policing.
Over the years, white residents fled, leaving a largely African American city starved for resources. Residents point to city roadways so crater-pocked that they destroyed tires, and the weakened water infrastructure that led to a crisis in which residents went weeks under a boil-water notice. Crime, activists said, was another outgrowth of the entrenched poverty and lack of opportunity that pervaded Jackson.
“A lot of these communities need to be healed,” said Terun Moore, a director of Strong Arms of JXN, a grass-roots nonprofit that is trying to stem the violence by rerouting young people to after-school programs and job opportunities. “They need some loving. They need a lot of restorative work.”
Rick Rojas contributed reporting from Nashville, and Katie Benner from Washington.