U.S. President Joe Biden visited the swing state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday to defend his record on gun safety and unveil his $37 billion "Safer America" crime prevention plan that the White House said will "save lives and make communities safer."
"When it comes to public safety in the United States, the answer is not defund the police. It's to fund the police," Biden said, distancing himself from calls by some members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to take away police departments' funding.
Biden called out Republicans for opposing his proposal to restore a ban on assault-style weapons, including firearms similar to the AR-15 that have been used in recent mass shootings.
"It's time to hold every elected official's feet to the fire and ask them, are they for banning assault weapons, yes or no?" he said. "If the answer is no, vote against them."
Biden is traveling to rally support for Democrats ahead of the November 8 elections in which Republicans hope to retake control of Congress, and tout recent legislative victories, including the narrow gun safety legislation passed in a rare bipartisan move earlier this year after mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and in Uvalde, Texas.
According to a recent Pew Research survey, 63% of Americans say they would like to see Congress pass another round of legislation to address gun violence.
However, Republicans accuse the president of pushing politically divisive measures that would damage Americans' right to bear arms — protected under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — without making the nation safer. Polls show that gun ownership is higher among Republicans than Democrats in the U.S.
Through his plan, Biden wants Congress to spend $13 billion to help communities hire and train 100,000 police officers over five years. Another $3 billion would go to clearing court backlogs and resolving cases involving murders and guns, and $5 billion more would support programs that could help stop violence before it occurs.
In addition, he wants $15 billion to provide grants to initiatives aimed at preventing violent crime or creating public health responses to nonviolent incidents.
In the aftermath of mass killings across the country, Biden and Democrats see an opportunity to claim the mantle of being a force for order, stability and public safety, said William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
"I don't think that there's an opportunity here for them to flip the script to actually gain an advantage," Howell told VOA. "But those have been long-standing domains in which Republicans have owned the issue, and this is an effort on the part of Biden to push back."
Biden has urged Congress to do more on gun safety, including ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, enforce universal background checks for all gun sales and eliminate gun manufacturers' immunity from lawsuits.
Escalation of campaign rhetoric
In a significant escalation of campaign rhetoric ahead of the midterm elections, Biden attacked Republicans for their defense of the perpetrators of the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol and their response to the FBI search of former President Donald Trump's home.
"Let me say this to my MAGA Republican friends in Congress," Biden said, referring to Trump's Make America Great Again campaign slogan. "Don't tell me you support law enforcement if you won't condemn what happened on the 6th. You can't be pro law enforcement and pro insurrection. You can't be a party of law and order and call the people who attacked the police on January 6 patriots," he said.
Biden called out Republican verbal attacks on FBI agents and their families following the search on Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, earlier this month, part of an investigation into the handling of presidential documents, including classified material.
“It’s sickening to see the new attacks on the FBI, threatening life of law enforcement agents and their families for simply carrying out the law and doing their job,” Biden said.
It's the first time the president has waded into the politically sensitive subject of the Mar-a-Lago search amid Republican accusations that he is politicizing the investigation.
Howell said Biden is trying to claim the mantle of the great defender of democracy, to stand up for the rule of law, protect norms of governance and abide by restrictions on executive power.
However, it could be seen as an effort for a political vendetta against Trump, who during his 2016 presidential campaign led crowds to chant "lock her up" against then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
It's a tricky space to navigate, Howell said. "To at once stand up for the rule of law but then not to be seen as using the power of government, using the power of the Justice Department, in order to prosecute enemies."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden will be back in Pennsylvania on Thursday to deliver a prime-time speech on "the continued battle for the soul of the nation" at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where he will speak about the nation’s core values and standing in the world.
"He will talk about the progress we have made as a nation to protect our democracy," she told reporters Tuesday. "How our rights and freedoms are still under attack and how we will make clear who is fighting for those rights, fighting for those freedoms and fighting for our democracy."