On February 3, President Joe Biden was in New York City, where local officials were grappling with a spike in shootings. He announced plans to bolster federal law enforcement and renewed his call for funding community violence intervention programs. Otherwise, Biden largely restated the previous actions he had taken on guns, like directing the Department of Justice to regulate ghost guns.
But in this appearance, as in others, Biden avoided granting one overarching request that 85 groups that advocate for gun reform and violence prevention have articulated repeatedly since his election: The creation of an office in the executive branch focused solely on gun violence.
Advocates say that Biden’s silence on the matter suggests he isn’t prioritizing the crisis. At the same time, the president promised to keep doing everything in his power to “make sure communities are safer.”
The office and its director would be responsible for coordinating a government-wide response to a worsening crisis. It would employ public health strategies, support and evaluate prevention programs, collect much-needed data, and hold other agencies accountable — with the ultimate goal of reducing shootings.
Creating such an office would be relatively easy. It could be accomplished by executive order, without congressional approval, and the idea is not a new one. Presidents — including Biden — have for decades created offices or other specialized units to tackle complex challenges. It’s become a common way for presidents to enact their will, with some clear advantages — as well as mixed results.
Establishing an office to tackle gun violence would mean that the federal government’s disparate groups and staffers devoted to the issue would be forced to collaborate, instead of tackling facets of it in isolation. So far, the Biden administration has suggested it is taking a different approach. It has directed several departments — sometimes separately and sometimes in collaboration — to take steps to address gun violence through enforcement, regulation, and funding. It has pointed to Susan Rice, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, as the administration’s point person on gun policy, though her portfolio goes far beyond the issue.
“The President is not standing still while too many innocent lives are being lost each day due to gun violence,” Biden spokesperson Michael Gwin told The Trace in an emailed statement, “so he’s going to continue to push Congress to act on common-sense measures that are currently being blocked by Senate Republicans, and he’ll continue to use the tools at his disposal to take further action, such as what we saw with last week’s announcement.”
Still, advocates are clamoring for an office of gun violence prevention, saying the Biden administration’s efforts are not enough. “There’s nobody overseeing how those different pieces fit into a single puzzle,” said Igor Volsky, the director of Guns Down America, a gun reform advocacy group, who added that he believes Rice’s portfolio is too large to give gun violence the attention it deserves.
March For Our Lives, a gun reform group largely founded by the survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, has been perhaps the most outspoken proponent of appointing a national director of gun violence prevention.
“We’re very clear on the fact that if no one has gun violence as their chief priority, it’s going to fall to the wayside,” said Zeenat Yahya, policy director for March For Our Lives.
Proponents like Yahya and the 36 members of Congress who wrote a letter to Biden in favor of creating the office say doing so would signal that the federal government is taking the crisis seriously and break down silos among a growing list of federal agencies working on the issue.
The extensive list of players includes the Department of Justice — and its law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — and the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Others, like the departments of Education, State, Veterans Affairs, Labor, Homeland Security, and Commerce, also fund violence prevention, research gun violence, and regulate firearms.
The advocates for a centralized federal response say it’s not a big ask. With a few exceptions, Congress has not challenged the president’s authority to organize and appoint officials in the executive branch. The office could begin, advocates say, by auditing existing grant programs across the federal government to find out what’s working and what isn’t — and then make it easier for nonprofits, cities, and states to access grant money. It could generate sorely lacking data about gun violence and the effectiveness of prevention programs, and research and create public awareness campaigns. With millions in new grants for community violence intervention programs made available over the last year, a centralized place evaluating the data from those programs is increasingly important.
“The major thing is that there is something created that can sustain a comprehensive strategy, and, year-to-year, continue to build on that strategy,” said Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes community-based strategies for violence prevention.
The number of special offices reporting to the president has varied over the years and they’ve operated under different names. But Biden has made frequent use of the strategy. Biden appointed John Kerry as special climate envoy, and he also created a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. At the time, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden directed “everyone who works for the president to use every tool available at our disposal to solve the climate crisis, because we’re going to take a whole-of-government approach.”
Then there’s the president’s COVID-19 team, which coordinates the massive response to the pandemic. And a day before he visited New York to discuss gun violence, Biden relaunched his Cancer Moonshot initiative, which included the appointment of a national coordinator, a move that, according to the White House, demonstrates the president’s “personal commitment” to the issue.
These offices have mixed records. Some have been brief experiments showing little success, while others have persisted for decades, becoming key components of the executive branch. In 1977, President Richard Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. Its main goal was to coordinate a governmentwide effort at preventing drug addiction. During its lifespan, it expanded access to prevention and treatment services and reined in the military’s use of heroin. President George W. Bush created the Office of Homeland Security after the September 11 attacks and before Congress established the Department of Homeland Security.
Others didn’t prove as successful, or as durable. President Barack Obama’s Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy lasted only two years. Its director resigned as House Republicans tried to block funding amid a backlash against Obama’s “czars,” as the heads of these offices have long been colloquially known. His Office of Urban Policy also met a similar fate, leaving advocates who pushed for its creation disappointed. Some panned its implementation as a symbolic move to appease urbanites.
Offices and the czars who head them do not have statutory personnel or budgetary control over other departments and agencies, according to James Pfiffner, a professor emeritus at George Mason University who has testified before the Senate about presidential use of czars and special offices. They can urge agencies to take action or communicate orders from the president, but can’t legally give orders themselves. “If the czar is really close to the president, and the president wants to really drive this policy, things will happen, and agencies and departments will go along with whatever they say,” Pfiffner said. “On the other hand, presidents have so much to do that they often just don’t have the time.”
But today, several state legislatures and local elected officials have created similar offices for fighting gun violence, such as in Colorado and New York, providing the White House with potential partners. At a February 3 roundtable with Biden, New York Governor Kathy Hochul touted the state’s coordinated response efforts. “For the first time in my life,” Hochul said, “I’m seeing a unification of purpose that has been missing.”
“The interest in a federal office didn’t come by accident,” said Reggie Moore, the former head of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, who now works as the director of violence prevention policy and engagement at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “There’s been a whole journey and a whole movement that has advocated for this, and local efforts that have inspired this.”
Perhaps most importantly, creating such an office and appointing someone to oversee it would bring a new sense of accountability, advocates said.
“I felt a different level of responsibility as a public servant and as a public official. This is happening on my watch, and I’m not even mayor. It’s a sobering reality,” Moore said. “This should be a priority for the federal government, because the level of gun violence that occurs in America is a very uniquely American problem. And it should be a federal priority to address and prevent [it] on the front end.”
After gun deaths in the United States soared to record levels last year, gun violence prevention groups see cause for a renewed push, with many now referring to it as a “demand” and not just a request.
“People are dying every day,” Yahya said. “And if what the president was doing was already working, we wouldn’t be here. He can do this right now without congressional approval.”