President-elect Joe Biden, joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, speaks...

President-elect Joe Biden, joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, speaks at The Queen theater on Nov. 9, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ran on the most ambitious agenda for reducing gun deaths in presidential history and received the most votes ever cast for a presidential ticket in American history. Exit polls tell us that most of those voters supported stricter gun laws. According to recent exit polls, 55% of voters nationally said they back tighter gun laws, including 51% of voters in Wisconsin, and 58% of voters in Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Regardless of what happens in the two Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5, the president-elect can and must take decisive action to respond to Americans’ call for safer communities.

Biden and Harris will take office amid rising firearm suicides, homicides, unintentional shootings and mass shootings. Some of that rise can be attributed to COVID-19. The virus has devastated small businesses, pushed millions onto unemployment rolls, overwhelmed our health care system — and contributed to a rise in gun deaths.

The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research organization, found that homicides increased an average of 42% across 28 major American cities during the summer and 34% over the fall. Criminologists suspect that challenges to mental health, economic stress, the inability of officers to engage in community policing, a rise in gang violence and a spike in gun ownership are behind the increase.

Moreover, public health officials are warning about rising firearm suicides and fatal domestic violence encounters. Quarantine boredom and isolation may also be increasing rates of unintentional shootings among children, which rose 43% in March and April compared to the same time over the last three years.

As the new administration scrambles to address the impact of COVID-19, it must ensure that addressing rising firearm injury and deaths are a central part of that effort. The problem will require a comprehensive multi-agency solution.

Earlier this year, a group of lawmakers led by Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Cory Booker urged Congress to include federal funding for front-line gun violence intervention workers in a COVID-19 relief bill, arguing that "Making robust investments in violence intervention programs would be an important step in mitigating gun violence during the pandemic as gun sales continue to rise and emergency health services are strained."

Such an investment would help save lives, particularly in communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and live closest to the everyday pain of gun violence. On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to create a $900 million initiative to fund evidence-based violence interventions in cities across the country. Including such funding in a COVID-relief measure would serve as a down payment on that effort.

Similarly, Biden should ensure that any legislation to address the consequences of COVID-19 also include funding for suicide prevention and critical dollars for domestic violence services.

A holistic approach to reducing gun deaths will also require the new administration to engage governmental agencies, cities and states, and influential and unexpected voices. The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, should identify existing grant programs that can support violence intervention programs and fund trauma-informed care to help communities struggling with cyclical gun violence. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can focus its enforcement efforts on firearm dealers who have a history of selling firearms that end up being used in crimes.

Given the ongoing spike in gun sales — the highest since the FBI began conducting background checks in 1998 — the new administration’s ATF should issue federal guidance on firearm safety and storage and encourage all gun dealers to disseminate it. The Department of Education can increase funding for mental health services in our nation’s schools and develop initiatives encouraging parents to lock up firearms in the home.

Finally, the new administration must use the presidential bully pulpit to educate Americans about the danger of firearms and enlist trusted voices in key positions throughout the administration to help make progress in saving lives.

Over the last several years, business leaders like Ed Stack of Dick's Sporting Goods and Doug McMillon of Walmart have dramatically instituted measures to ensure responsible gun sales and been instrumental in inspiring other companies to prioritize the safety and well-being of their customers and employees. Biden should encourage business leaders to continue making the business case for tackling the gun violence crisis, as they can reach a broad public audience and have the ear of more conservative lawmakers.

More Americans voted in the 2020 election than at any time in the last 120 years. Now, we must get to work on building a safer future for us all.

Sakran and Volsky wrote this piece for The Baltimore Sun.

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