DOJ Launches ‘Strike Forces’ to Target Gun Trafficking

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Illicit guns found in raid near new jersey school. Courtesy Osprey Observer via Flickr.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching firearms trafficking “strike forces” to address the illegal gun trafficking that has fueled an upsurge of violence in major cities, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Tuesday.

In the next 30 days, the DOJ will launch five cross-jurisdictional strike forces targeting “significant firearms trafficking corridors” that funnel guns into New York, Chicago, San Francisco-Oakland, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Led by U.S. attorneys, the forces will collaborate with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and local law enforcement officials to combat trafficking networks.

From the places where people obtain guns unlawfully to the areas people use illegal guns to commit crimes, trafficking networks often cross state lines. To curb violence, the DOJ said state, local, territorial and tribal collaboration will be critical.

“Working with our local partners to tackle violent crime is one of the Justice Department’s most important responsibilities,” Garland said in a press release.

“Our firearms trafficking strike forces will investigate and disrupt the networks that channel crime guns into our communities with tragic consequences.”

The success of the strike force initiative will be measured in an “actual reduction of violent incidents and victimization,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told a webinar organized by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on the gun violence surge earlier Tuesday.

“We see this as a whole-of-government effort.”

Across major cities, gun violence is rising, and a spike in firearms might be causing the surge.

Firearm arrests increased 42 percent in Philadelphia between April and December 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019 — a pattern present in most cities, according to Vox.

Ghost guns — self-assembling, untraceable firearms — are also contributing to crime. Baltimore police reported a 400 percent increase in untraceable ghost guns earlier this year, according to The Baltimore Sun.

There have been 296 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2021, according to statistics compiled by the Gun Violence Archive.

These trends explain the DOJ’s decision to launch the strike forces, which builds on the department’s May announcement of a Violent Crime Reduction Initiative.

The initiative identifies multiple strategies federal officials are pursuing to combat gun violence, including investing in prevention and intervention programs, enhancing Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) programs throughout the U.S. and prosecuting “the most significant drivers” of gun violence.

As the Biden administration invests in anti-crime measures, some police officers argue that a decline in police activity following last summer’s protests for racial justice caused murder rates to spike.

Jason Johnson, the former deputy police commissioner for Baltimore, argued in USA Today that “the political response to the unrest led to de-policing and the resulting record violence.”

But others offer different explanations. Some experts say rising homicide rates not only reflect increases in firearms, but broad distrust in law enforcement. Criminologists David Pyrooz, Justin Nix and Scott Wolfe wrote in the Denver Post that the criminal justice system is facing a “legitimacy crisis” with three critical consequences for crime rates.

“The first is de-policing, where officers pull back from proactive policing in response to public criticism,” they wrote. “Second, depleted trust in the law means citizens will think twice about calling the police to report crimes or suspicious behaviors. Lastly, de-legitimacy of the law emboldens criminal offending populations, as the moral obligation to follow the law is weakened.”

With crime rates forcing president Joe Biden to look beyond his response to COVID-19 and its economic consequences, his administration has announced a “five-pronged plan” to reduce gun violence.

Priorities include curbing the flow of firearms, disseminating federal funds to local law enforcement for personnel support and investment in violence intervention programs, expanding summer programming for teens and helping formerly incarcerated people with reentry, according to Time.

Biden and Garland are expected to publicly detail this plan Wednesday following a meeting with bipartisan organizers and local elected officials. Around $350 billion in federal funds will be used to hire additional law enforcement officers or fund community violence intervention programs, with an additional $122 billion for programming and employment opportunities for teenagers and formerly incarcerated people.

“This is a historic amount of funding that the President is making available to cities and states through the American Rescue Plan to invest in a range of tools to reduce gun violence in their communities,” a senior administration told Time.

In addition to detailing plans for the firearms trafficking strike forces, the administration is also expected today to announce plans to implement a policy that revokes licenses from dealers the first time they violate federal law, according to Axios.

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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