WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Justice Department is launching an effort in five cities in the U.S. to reduce spiking gun violence by addressing illegal trafficking and prosecuting offenses that help put guns in the hands of criminals.
Attorney General Merrick Garland will launch the gun trafficking strike forces in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The effort will include stepped-up enforcement in so-called supply areas -- cities and states where it's easier to obtain firearms that are later trafficked into other cities with more restrictive gun laws.
Besides prioritizing gun crimes, the strike forces will embrace intelligence sharing and prosecutions across jurisdictions, Justice Department officials said. Authorities have also embedded federal agents in homicide units of police departments across the U.S., have been deploying additional crime analysts and are conducting fugitive sweeps to arrest people who have outstanding state and federal warrants for violent crimes.
Violent crimes, particularly homicides and shootings, are up in many cities around the country, and the Biden administration has sought to aid communities hamstrung by violence. But the initiative launched this week differs from other recent federal efforts to address violence, because it is not sending agents or prosecutors into cities with crime spikes. Justice officials say the strike forces are targeted prosecutions meant to be a longer-term effort to combat gun trafficking.
There is no federal gun trafficking law, so federal agents often must rely on other statutes, like lying on a firearms purchase form, to prosecute gun trafficking cases or stop straw purchasers, people who buy weapons legally to then provide them to others who can't legally have them.
Officials hope the new plan will mean federal prosecutors in some of the supply cities will be more likely to bring charges in those cases.
But if the effort sounds familiar, it is. In 2017, Chicago police, federal agents and prosecutors launched a similar initiative -- the Chicago Crime Gun Strike Force -- to try to stem the flow of illegal firearms in the city and curb rampant gun violence.
The Justice Department said that strike force was formed in response to a surge in firearm violence and its work is continuing, but it has been focused locally in Chicago on reducing violence and not on gun trafficking from other jurisdictions that put the guns in the hands of criminals. That's been the case with similar gun task forces, too, including in New York.
"These previous approaches generally surged resources to specific areas, without a sustained focus on cross-jurisdictional trafficking," the department said. "Now we are formalizing and standardizing coordination between districts. This strategy is focused on trafficking -- keeping firearms out of the hands of those who will pull the trigger."
Police statistics released earlier this month showed that fewer killings were reported over the first six months of 2021 in Chicago compared with the same period last year, but the number of shootings and people shot increased.
While crime is rising in many U.S. cities, violent crime overall remains lower than it was a decade ago or even five years ago.
Experts say this year's spike in crime defies easy explanation and point to a number of potential causes, including the coronavirus pandemic, worries about the economy and large gatherings after months of stay-at-home orders.