After Years of Failure on Gun Control, Democrats Push More Police Funding

Mass shootings used to trigger calls for stricter gun control. But with gridlock in Congress and midterms looming, Democrats turn to more cops instead.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House April 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden announced a new firearm regulation aimed at reining in ghost guns, untraceable, unregulated weapons made from kids. Biden also announced Steve Dettelbach as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2022. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After a mass shooting on a subway train in Brooklyn, New York, last Tuesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams vowed to double the number of subway cops. He had already sent an additional 1,000 officers belowground in February, in response to reports of crimes on the subway, to patrol platforms and expel homeless people from the transit system.

Adams’s deference to more policing as a salve for gun violence may stem from his own history in the New York Police Department, but it also fits him into a pattern now evident within the national Democratic Party. Where Democrats once reacted to gun violence — especially mass shootings — by calling for stricter firearms regulations, today they are increasingly turning to greater funding for the police.

Lawmakers have been able to come up with funding for the carceral system that takes taxpayer dollars away from other causes, said Kareem Henton, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Cleveland who is working with a coalition fighting the construction of a new multimillion dollar jail in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. “And yet, things that we’ve been begging for as far as providing better solutions for some of the issues that we’re plagued with like homelessness, houselessness, people with these addiction issues and mental health issues that go in and out of our system and it doesn’t get addressed. And it’s still a problem.”

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012; a Las Vegas music festival in 2017; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018; and a spa in Atlanta last year were all followed by calls for more robust gun control at the state and federal levels. But in the wake of more recent spikes in gun violence, national and local lawmakers have prioritized additional funding for law enforcement. New York already has stricter gun laws than many other states in the country and has invested millions of dollars to trace illegal guns, creating a political environment where additional gun restrictions are less politically feasible. (The state Supreme Court is currently reviewing a challenge from the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association to make it easier to carry a concealed handgun.) But on the federal level, attempts at gun regulation remain lacking, and measures to amplify funding for law enforcement have a better chance of moving through Congress in a political environment where Democrats in power have struggled to pass major pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Amid a spike in gun violence, Democrats have blamed progressive members of the party who favor more substantive police reform for risking midterm chances and alienating voters. “With all the respect in the world for Cori Bush, that is not the position of the Democratic Party,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in February, referring to the Missouri Democrat in her role as one of the few members of Congress who has maintained calls to defund the police. The speaker instead lauded Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., for “saying that defund the police is dead.”


How Moderate Democrats Derailed Police Reform

While nationwide calls to reform policing led lawmakers to kneel wearing Kente cloth in 2020 and spurred the failed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, they haven’t substantively changed the national party’s policing agenda or made any major differences in policy. At the local level, cities that reallocated largely insignificant portions of their police budgets in 2020 have mostly added that funding back, and then some.

Despite their worth for political points, more police do not necessarily mean fewer homicides or gun crimes: Cities that maintained, cut, or reinstated police funding levels alike experienced spikes in gun crimes and homicides in 2020. And the party’s most prominent figures often fail to acknowledge the risk of alienating voters who support more radical police reforms, among other policies Biden ran on and has failed to deliver — like passing the Build Back Better social spending plan or eliminating student debt. Biden’s approval rating among young voters in particular has collapsed since he took office in January 2021, dropping 30 percentage points among young Black voters and 26 points among young Hispanic voters.

The White House 2023 budget includes $32 billion in new police spending, including putting more police officers “on the beat for accountable community policing,” efforts to stem gun trafficking, researching gun violence as a public health crisis, and expanding community violence intervention. Biden also called last month on Congress “to do its job by passing this Budget and other essential legislation to reduce gun crime.”

In the meantime, congressional Democrats are working on another bill that would increase funding to police. In January, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., introduced the Invest to Protect Act, which would provide $200 million over five years to police departments with fewer than 200 officers: the bulk of the country’s police departments. The measure, which has 55 co-sponsors in the House, outlines investments in de-escalation training, body cameras, recruitment efforts, and mental health resources for officers. “We need to ensure our law enforcement agencies have the resources needed to recruit, train and retain police — especially as crime rates continue soaring across the country,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said last month in a statement applauding the introduction of the bill’s companion by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., in the Senate. (Co-sponsors include Sens. Grassley; Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Jon Tester, D-Mont.) Both bills were referred to the judiciary committees in their respective chambers.

Warnock did not respond to questions about whether he was working on any additional bills to address demands from nationwide protests in 2020 to reform law enforcement. Cortez Masto’s office said she was supportive of former and ongoing bipartisan efforts to negotiate a police reform bill, and she was disappointed that those efforts had stalled last year.

Gottheimer told The Intercept he spent the last year and a half working closely with both parties on police reform. “One thing we discussed is that our smaller towns and departments, in particular, don’t often get all the resources they need to protect our communities and themselves,” he said. The talks hadn’t “landed on a final piece of legislation yet,” Gottheimer said, though “there are many areas where we have found strong agreement. Many of those policies are captured in this bipartisan bill.” His office declined to clarify if he was working on a separate package. Cortez Masto spokesperson Lauren Wodarski wrote in a statement to The Intercept that the bill would “provide critical resources to nearly every police department in Nevada.” A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not respond to a question about whether he would support the bill.

There have been 131 mass shootings so far this year in the United States, according to the independent research group Gun Violence Archive. At the same point in time last year, there had been 140 mass shootings; 83 in 2020; 82 in 2019; and 62 in 2018. Last Tuesday, just hours after the Brooklyn subway shooting, Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill into law that allows people to carry guns without a license or background check, saying the bill was a public safety measure.

In November, Biden signed three policing bills that would provide additional resources for mental health, allow people who attempt to kill law enforcement overseas to be prosecuted in the U.S., and enhance benefits for first responders injured on duty. The Invest to Protect Act is far broader: If passed, it would be one of the most substantial police funding bills to move in Congress since the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — which included additional funding for police along with mitigation efforts that were already in place in several cities, like a ban on chokeholds, requirements for implicit bias training, and body cameras — failed last year. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who sponsored the Justice in Policing Act in the House, is now running for mayor of Los Angeles with explicit calls to hire more police to the LAPD.

Eric Adams, who ran his mayoral campaign focused on fighting crime, has directed the New York City Police Department to expend significant efforts to target and remove unhoused people from around the city. Last month, the NYPD dispatched a new “business improvement team” to address concerns from Midtown Manhattan business owners about homelessness and crimes of poverty. NYPD officers have cleared hundreds of homeless encampments in recent weeks. The NYPD announced earlier this month that transit arrests were up 64 percent over the last year, and fare evasion arrests had increased by 51 percent.

“I support what Karen Bass is doing,” Pelosi told Stephanopoulos in February, referring to her LAPD hiring calls, “and Mayor Adams of New York.”

Aqeela Sherrills, director of the Community Based Public Safety Collective, told The Intercept that although his Newark, New Jersey-based group works closely with police there, the law enforcement lobby has a tendency to “push narratives that build the capacity of their respective work.” Sherrills, whose teenage son was shot and killed in 2004, said community-driven violence intervention programs have the power to change that.

“Our theory of change is that if you better serve victims, you prevent them from becoming perpetrators,” Sherrills said. Newark cut homicides by 50 percent over the past six years, after a federal consent decree ordered major changes to the police department and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka brought Sherrills to the city to start a community violence street team. But there hasn’t been enough federal or local investment in groups that do community violence intervention, and while the White House program has tried to fill that gap, “the system is slow to integrate new learning,” Sherrills said. “When we see a mass shooting, the conversation is not necessarily to me about gun control or more cops. It’s about how are we serving these victims. How are we helping these families and these communities heal from this traumatic event?”

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