President Joe Biden announced this week that the White House will allocate a portion of the funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act toward public safety, including $350 million for state and local law enforcement agencies.
Specifically, the president said, the money should be used to stem a rising national tide of violent crime by "taking on the bad actors doing bad things to our communities."
Top on his list of "bad things" is gun violence which, though it plummeted during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, has come back with a vengeance.
Biden's plan focuses on providing money to cities that need more police, offering community support and most of all cracking down on gun violence and those supplying illegal firearms. He outlined steps aimed to help cities establish strike forces to stop weapons trafficking and said he would seek more money for the agency that tracks the nation's guns — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"These merchants of death are breaking the law for profit," Biden said. "If you willfully sell a gun to someone who's prohibited, my message to you is this: We'll find you and we'll seek your license to sell guns. We'll make sure you can't sell death and mayhem on our streets."
So much for trying to label this administration and Democrats in general as "soft on crime," or accuse it of trying to "defund" police — which we've said over and over is a non-starter.
But not to fret. The GOP tongues already are wagging. Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn took aim Thursday with this red-meat prattle: "Anti-gun activist and Biden ATF Nominee David Chipman wants to ban Tennesseans' hunting rifles."
She's talking about assault-style rifles, which in 2009 were re-named "modern sporting rifles" by the U.S. National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade association.
The new label became the darling of the gun industry, and by the 2010s, according to The New York Times, AR-15 style rifles became one of the "most beloved and most vilified rifles" in the United States, thanks in part to their use in high-profile mass shootings. The National Rifle Association began promoting them as "America's rifle" and bragging that their popularity was partially attributable to proposals to ban or restrict them.
But back to what the president and the White House said rather than what Tennessee's mega gun makers like Barrett told Marsha to say.
"With the secondary consequences of the pandemic and the proliferation of illegal guns over the same period, we have seen increased violence over the past year and a half. Homicides rose 30%, and gun assaults rose 8% in large cities in 2020," reads a statement from the White House.
"The number of homicides in the first quarter of 2021 was 24% higher than the number of homicides in the first quarter of 2020, and 49% higher than in the first quarter of 2019."
Those were the same years when Republicans and gun lobbyists were working feverishly to ease gun restrictions — especially in Tennessee.
Closer to reality is that we should think Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and the super-majority Republicans of the General Assembly are the ones who are "soft on crime." Lee pushed the permitless carry legislation for two years and signed it into law in April.
What the law means is that beginning July 1, most Tennesseans ages 21 and older will no longer be legally required to undergo state criminal background checks, firearms training or demonstrate firearm competency in order to carry a handgun either openly or concealed while in public.
When Lee signed the bill into law on April 8, he thanked lawmakers and the NRA for supporting the measure that he first championed in 2020, but withdrew amid last year's coronavirus pandemic. Tennessee now joins 18 other states with a similar law on their books — 10 added in the past six years.
But there's still another local conundrum to this saga.
Even as the federal government begins to earmark spending from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in May, local governments are dragging their feet on spending plans.
They don't put it that way, of course. They say they are "waiting on guidance" before tapping into their share of the some $350 billion headed toward states, counties and cities.
In the Chattanooga region, we're talking about more than $270 million.
But we already know a lot, and we knew it even before Biden emphasized what some of the crime enforcement money could be used for. In May the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued "interim final rules" for city and county use and said the rules would be finalized after a public input period ends on July 16.
We already know, too, that the money can be spent on public health expenditures, like vaccines, tests and other medical care; helping workers, businesses, households or nonprofits economically burdened by the pandemic; replacing lost public sector revenue if the locality's overall revenue took a hit during the pandemic; providing premium pay for workers deemed essential by the city or county mayors, and making water, sewer or stormwater infrastructure improvements.
Sorry, Marsha. Sorry, Gov. Lee. Sorry local folks. Stop blaming this on Democrats, the federal government, the Biden administration or any other false iteration of "defunding" police or defining infrastructure or whatever partisan talking point you can conjure.
Show some vision and leadership for a change.