Biden names Harris to lead first federal gun violence prevention office

<span>Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The Biden administration has announced the nation’s first federal Office of Gun Violence Prevention. In a statement released Thursday, the White House said the office will be overseen by Kamala Harris’s office, directed by Stefanie Feldman, a longtime Biden gun policy adviser, and deputy-directed by Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox, who have led national prevention efforts through the Community Justice Action Fund and Everytown for Gun Safety respectively.

The creation of this office is a continuation of the administration’s work on preventing high-profile mass shootings and local homicides that primarily affect lower-income Black and Latino communities.

“In the absence of that sorely-needed action, the Office of Gun Violence Prevention along with the rest of my Administration will continue to do everything it can to combat the epidemic of gun violence that is tearing our families, our communities, and our country apart,” Biden said in the announcement.

Related: Biden says gun violence ‘ripping our communities apart’ after Tennessee shooting

Throughout his presidency Biden has used executive actions to regulate homemade firearms – known as ghost guns – in the same way as traditional firearms, and to clarify who counts as a gun seller and thus is required by law to conduct background checks. Last year he also signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that, among other things, tightens background checks and bolsters mental health programs.

“Every family, in every community, should have the freedom to live and to thrive,” Harris said in the statement. “We know true freedom is not possible if people are not safe. This epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day.”

Biden has advocated for re-instating the national assault weapons ban and expanding background checks since he was vice-president. A historic increase in gun homicides in 2020 pushed community-based violence prevention further up the administration’s agenda.

“It’s been at crisis level for a long time. And, Covid-19 brought unprecedented spikes to cities across the country. Those spikes and his response to our calls for a new approach really took shape in 2020,” said Fatimah Loren Dreier, the executive director of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (Havi) , a national organization working with hospitals to build and support violence-prevention programs for gunshot-wound victims.

“We certainly need this sort of heightened awareness on the work and the need. So I am very hopeful that this will be substantive and that this will make a difference and move the ball on the movement,” echoed David Muhammad, the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.

He and Dreier were part of a chorus of Black violence-prevention advocates and professionals who rallied for federal dollars, including from the American Rescue Plan, to go toward public health approaches to reducing shootings that are distinct and sometimes separate from those led by police departments and prosecutors.

“It feels great to see [the Biden administration] responding to young people in a significant way,” said David Hogg, a founder of March for Our Lives and a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “This is not a bill getting passed, but this is shown that president Biden is taking direct action.”

“The administration’s top focus was the pandemic,” he added. “Now it’s time to focus on the next epidemic, which is the epidemic of gun violence.”