Joe Biden vows to ban assault rifles during Pennsylvania visit to present 'Safer America' plan

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By Euronews  with AP
President Joe Biden speaks at the Arnaud C. Marts Center on the campus of Wilkes University, 30 August 2022
President Joe Biden speaks at the Arnaud C. Marts Center on the campus of Wilkes University, 30 August 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matt Slocum   -  

US president is "determined" to ban assault rifles in the United States, he said in an address during his visit to the state of Pennsylvania, where he is poised to talk up his administration's plans to prevent crime.

"Peace of mind [is] knowing your kids can go to school, or the playground, or movies, at a high school game, and come home safely. Not have to think about it for too long. So many families haven’t had that peace of mind," Joe Biden said while presenting his Safer America Plan on Tuesday at the Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

"They see hate and anger and violence. Just walking the streets of America -- and they just want to feel safe again. They want to feel a sense of security. That’s what my crime plan is all about," Biden stated.

The ever-increasing spike in gun violence is an issue that has become potent politically both in this state and nationwide ahead of November's midterm elections.

It's Biden's first of three trips in the coming week, underscoring the state's role as a key political battleground, and it comes days before former President Donald Trump hosts his own rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday.

The White House said Biden would use his Tuesday visit to call out Republicans for opposing his proposal to restore a ban on assault-style weapons.

Both parties worked together in a rare effort to pass bipartisan gun safety legislation earlier this year after massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, but Biden has repeatedly said more needs to be done.

History of opposition to assault weapons

As a US senator, Biden played a leading role in temporarily banning assault-style weapons, including firearms similar to the AR-15 that have exploded in popularity in recent years, and he wants to put the law back into place.

"A majority of Americans support this ... the NRA opposes it," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. "So we're going to hear from the president about the importance of making sure we protect our communities."

Biden's speech at the Arnaud C. Marts Center in Wilkes-Barre comes as Democrats try to blunt Republican efforts to use concern about crime to their advantage in the midterms.

It's a particularly fraught issue in Pennsylvania, a key swing state where a US Senate seat and the governor's office are up for grabs.

The Republican candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, accuses Democrat Josh Shapiro of being soft on crime as the state's twice-elected attorney general, saying at one recent event that crime has gone up on his opponent's watch and that Shapiro "stands aside" as homicides rise across Pennsylvania.

Homicides have been increasing in Pennsylvania, but overall crime seems to have fallen over the last year, according to state statistics.

As attorney general since 2017, Shapiro has toured the state discussing the need to crack down on gun trafficking and ghost guns and to recruit more police officers. 

Last December, he said that state agents and Philadelphia police officers working together had reduced the number of shootings in areas that were confronting gun violence related to drug trafficking.

Shapiro plans to attend Tuesday's event with Biden.

Republicans use support for police against Democrats

The Republican US Senate nominee, heart surgeon-turned television celebrity Dr Mehmet Oz, has tried to portray the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, as extreme and reckless on crime policy.

Fetterman has endorsed recommendations that more geriatric and rehabilitated prisoners can be released from state prisons without harming public safety. 

Oz and Republicans have distorted that into the claim that Fetterman wants to release "dangerous criminals" from prisons or that he's in favour of "emptying prisons".

Fetterman does not plan to be in Wilkes-Barre with Biden, but he's expected to march in Pittsburgh's Labor Day parade when the president visits on 5 September. 

Biden also will be in Pennsylvania on Thursday for a prime-time speech that the White House said will address "the continued battle for the soul of the nation" and defending democracy.

It's unclear whether crime will end up as a pivotal issue in November.

Only 11% of US adults named crime or violence as one of the top five issues they consider most important for the government to work on in the next year, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in June. 

That is unchanged since December, and it's well below the percentage naming many of the other top issues for Americans.

Biden has tried to balance his approach to crime by acknowledging voters' fears and praising law enforcement but also urging more accountability for officers.

He's rejected the activist slogan "defund the police," which Republicans have used as a cudgel against Democrats in general by calling for more money for cops.

Biden's trip to Wilkes-Barre was originally scheduled for 21 July but was cancelled when the president contracted COVID-19 and went into isolation while he was contagious.

Biden has laid out a $37 billion (€36.9bn) plan for addressing crime and boosting law enforcement resources. He wants Congress to spend $13bn to help communities hire and train 100,000 police officers over five years. 

Another $3bn would go to clearing court backlogs and resolving cases involving murders and guns, and $5bn more would go to support programs that could help stop violence before it occurs.

In addition, Biden is looking for $15bn to provide grants to initiatives for preventing violent crime or creating public health responses to nonviolent incidents.