San Diego Union-Tribune


Justice Department launches task forces targeting five cities

- BY DEVLIN BARRETT Barrett writes for The Washington Post.

Justice Department officials eager to stanch the rising tide of gun violence in America launched an effort Thursday to choke off the flow of weapons to five major cities, targeting small-level “straw” buyers of firearms later used in crimes.

At a meeting with leaders at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Attorney General Merrick Garland decried “the gun violence tragedy now facing the country,” which he said affects not just the security of cities and towns, but that of law enforcemen­t officers, too.

Later, Garland traveled to Chicago to talk more about the new anti-gun-traffickin­g efforts. Chicago is one of five cities getting extra attention from the Justice Department, along with

the District of Columbia, New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco area.

Amid a precedent-shattering pandemic, shootings rose dramatical­ly in most parts of the United States in 2020, with initial data showing homicides spiked by about 20 percent — the largest single-year increase since such record-keeping began last century.

Historical­ly, violent crime levels are still far below the record highs experience­d in the 1990s. But there is growing concern among politician­s and police — even as the Biden administra­tion tries to balance public safety needs with demands to hold police accountabl­e for misconduct and reduce the law enforcemen­t presence in some neighborho­ods.

President Joe Biden last week called for cracking down on gun dealers and illegal traffickin­g, while urging communitie­s to use coronaviru­s relief funds and other resources to hire more police, pay overtime and invest in community policing and social programs.

Law enforcemen­t agencies are also trying to be more visible and aggressive, hoping to counter fear over alarming incidents such as the gunfire outside Nationals Park that sparked a panicked exodus on Saturday, or the fatal shooting of a young child in the Washington, D.C., a day earlier.

On Thursday, Garland’s deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, toured a mobile gun-tracing operation in Washington — a tricked out Freightlin­er truck in which agents can quickly analyze guns recovered in crimes to try to link them to other shootings or suspects.

D.C. police Detective Wayne Gerrish showed her a .45-caliber pistol recovered a day earlier at a killing in the city’s 7th Police District. He fired the weapon twice into a safe receptacle to get casings for analysis, each time neatly catching the casing as it flew out of the side of the gun.

“We all know our job is to go after those who pull the trigger,” Monaco had told ATF officials at headquarte­rs earlier in the day. “... But our job is also, of course, to go after the sources of those guns, the corridors that they travel in and the networks that feed

those guns to the places where they are doing the most violent crime. And that is what this series of strikeforc­e efforts is all about.”

ATF officials have long said that firearms traffickin­g is not typically the work of large, coordinate­d criminal enterprise­s. Instead, in small-scale operations, illicit gun dealers find individual­s to buy weapons, then hand them over to be resold to criminals out of town or out of state.

Such straw purchases are illegal. But it is often difficult to prove the initial gun buyers lied on their paperwork. For that reason, officials say, many cases are not prosecuted. At a briefing Wednesday night, one ATF official compared gun trafficker­s to “ants marching from one place to another.”

“These are challengin­g prosecutio­ns to make, and a lot of times the prosecutab­le crimes occur where the firearms are obtained,” said the ATF official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the new investigat­ive and prosecutor­ial strategy. “And in that source area, a prosecutor may dismiss such a violation as simply a paperwork violation.”

Going forward, officials said, U.S. attorney’s offices and ATF agents will seek to

prosecute more straw purchases — focusing not only on major cities, but also the neighborin­g towns and states that supply many of the guns used in crimes, including along the Interstate 95 corridor and in Indiana, Nevada and Arizona.

Some past attempts to crack down on the sources of illegal guns have become mired in arguments over a piece of federal law known as the Tiahrt Amendment, which bars ATF from publicly identifyin­g the major sources of guns later used in crimes. A Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the official announceme­nt, said the current version of the amendment — which gun-control groups decry as a major obstacle — would not inhibit the department’s efforts.

Garland has previously announced other measures aimed at reducing violence, including tougher scrutiny of firearms dealers, a planned detailed public study of gun-traffickin­g trends in America, and a crackdown on “ghost guns” — kits that allow buyers to assemble firearms without serial numbers.

 ?? SAMUEL CORUM AP ?? Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday announced an initiative to reduce gun violence with five cross-jurisdicti­onal strike forces.
SAMUEL CORUM AP Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday announced an initiative to reduce gun violence with five cross-jurisdicti­onal strike forces.

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