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Biden speaks about gun violence

Then-President Bill Clinton hugs then-Sen. Joseph Biden, in September 1994 during a signing ceremony for a crime bill at the White House.
Then-President Bill Clinton hugs then-Sen. Joseph Biden, in September 1994 during a signing ceremony for a crime bill at the White House. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

For President Biden, today’s announcement on gun crime prevention is the latest chapter in his long — and politically complicated — history with crime legislation. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden helped write the 1994 crime bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“A guy named Biden wrote that bill and he wrote that bill by going down and sitting down with the president of the United States of America,” said Biden, crowing about the legislation during a speech on the Senate floor at the time.

In the 1990s, the tough-on-crime stance was viewed as a prized accomplishment for Biden, who warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.”

Yet a quarter-century later, his warm embrace of Clinton during a Rose Garden signing ceremony for the 1994 crime bill stirred controversy during his 2020 presidential primary. Several candidates, including then-opponent Kamala Harris, criticized Biden for his role in the legislation, which she and other critics said led to an era of mass incarceration.

Biden dismissed such criticism from the progressive base of his party, reminding voters that the controversial crime bill at the time was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus and several of the nation’s leading Black mayors. At the same time, he minimized his role in getting the law enacted, saying he was “got stuck with” the job because he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today, the politics of crime legislation are less certain.

A movement to “Defund the Police” has lost considerable steam inside the Democratic Party, amid rising crime rates across the country. Biden has consistently been opposed to any such measures — and avoided such language — by refusing to accept the criticism from progressives during his presidential race.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials have begun placing greater emphasis on community intervention programs to prevent violence, a shift away from the style of policing embedded in the laws Biden helped pass.

“We have to do a better job of … not repeating the mistakes of the past, where we think the best way to solve violent crime is to go out and arrest people for low-level offenses, creating this mass incarceration epidemic that we are trying to handle,” said Chief Shon Barnes of the Madison, Wisconsin, police. “That is simply not the way to handle violent crime in America.”

“I believe that we have to start partnering with other people in our community, and sometimes the police have to take a backseat and allow some of our civic groups, some of our entities within city government to take the lead and we take a supporting role. The idea is to prevent crime and not simply to respond to it,” Barnes said on CNN.

While Biden’s views and record on crime hardly kept him from winning the primary and general election campaigns, they now present a new test for the White House in its quest to avoid deep schisms inside the Democratic Party.

Republicans, in their effort to win control of the House and Senate next year, are already seizing on the issue of crime. Party officials believe it’s one of the strongest arguments to win back suburban voters, particularly women, who abandoned the GOP in the Trump era.

“Democrats up and down the ballot have done everything in their power to subvert law enforcement,” Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said this week. “Voters will hold Democrats accountable for their pro-crime policies.”

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