WASHINGTON — Mayor Brandon Scott emerged from a White House meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday and said the city hopes to intensify — perhaps with more federal help — its efforts to address gun trafficking and the root causes of violent crime.
Standing outside the White House, Scott described a closed session with the Democratic president, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other local officials that included an exchange of ideas about how Baltimore and other cities can curb escalating violence heading into the summer months.
Scott, a Democrat, said the ideas amounted to “not being soft or tough on crime. It’s being smarter.”
They included a collaboration announced Wednesday in which Baltimore and more than a dozen other cities will trade information on community intervention programs.
Echoing Biden’s sentiment from earlier in the day, the mayor said his task would be easier if the Democrat-led U.S. Senate would approve legislation banning assault weapons and closing loopholes in required background checks on people buying firearms.
“Listen, this is a public health crisis,” Scott told reporters. “We need them to wake up and get out of the way. We need them to do what the president is asking. These gun laws that we’re talking about are common sense, simple things — not taking guns away from people.”
Republicans have argued that previously announced executive actions, such as asking the Justice Department to draft model “red flag” laws to allow family and friends to petition a court to temporarily bar someone from accessing a gun, are unconstitutional. Republicans also have argued the increase in crime is a result of Democratic efforts to cut police department budgets.
Baltimore has not made significant cuts to its police budget but has suffered more than 300 homicides annually for the last six consecutive year. So far in 2021, the city has experienced 162 homicides — 10 more than this time last year. Another 329 non-fatal shootings have been investigated, compared to 280 at this time last year, according to the police department.
In remarks before Scott was interviewed, Biden said the mayor told him that more than 80% of the guns in Baltimore come from outside the city.
Scott repeated that statistic to reporters, and said the city needs more federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents on the ground to better address gun trafficking.
“ATF is a great partner for us,” Scott said. “We’re very hopeful that we’re going to get not just more agents but we’re going to beef up that wonderful partnership that we have.”
Scott said he also talked to Biden about community-level intervention and “about the importance of putting people back to work, especially those who are returning home from prison”
Scott’s appearance came as Biden announced a series of initiatives to try to combat gun violence.
The White House said its strategy includes cracking down with a “zero tolerance” policy on gun dealers who run afoul of federal law.
In remarks after the closed-door meeting with state and local elected officials, Biden called gun traffickers “merchants of death” and said a relatively small number of dealers account for a disproportionate share of trafficking.
“We’ll find you,” the president promised.
He said gun violence “shouldn’t be a red or blue issue. It’s an American issue.”
Baltimore figured prominently in one of the initiatives unveiled by the White House.
The city is among 14 cities or counties being targeted by the administration to participate in community violence intervention programs.
The programs aim to use trusted community “messengers” to link people to various social and economic services “to reduce the likelihood of violence as an answer to conflict,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Funding for the locally-based programs is available through the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion bill approved by Congress in March that was tied to COVID-19 relief. The legislation contained $122 billion in K-12 schools funding that the Biden administration says can be used for violence prevention.
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Baltimore and the 13 other jurisdictions are to form a “collaborative” whose representatives will meet to assess strategies “that reduce gun violence and strengthen community-based infrastructure to enhance public safety for children, families, and communities, and to advance equity,” the fact sheet said.
It said that while the meetings will occur over the next 18 months, an immediate goal is “to anticipate and respond to the potential rise in violence this summer,” according to the White House materials.
Among those partnering with Baltimore will be Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington and other urban centers struggling to contain violent crime.
The community effort is to be supported by charities, foundations and other organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
Others participating with Biden at the White House meeting were mayors Steve Alexander of Rapid City, South Dakota, and Danielle Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County; New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal; and police chief Murphy Paul Jr., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Also attending were DeVone Boggan and Eddie Bocanegra, who oversee programs in northern California and Chicago, respectively, to try to curb gun violence.
Since March, Baltimore has been partnering with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety to develop the Gun Trafficking Intelligence Platform, a program that integrates data from the ATF’s e-Trace system into local policing. The system allows participating law enforcement agencies to submit firearm traces and ballistic evidence to a national database to compare to the police department’s own data on crime and the city’s ShotSpotter gunshot detection network.
Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article