Local leaders across the country must lead the way on two disparate yet significant national issues: gun control and immigration. That was the message from Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. John McCain, who on Tuesday each addressed city government leaders gathered in Washington this week for the Congressional City Conference, hosted by the National League of Cities (NLC).
"You have significant influence," Biden told a packed auditorium of city councilors, mayors and city managers, asking them to lobby Congress on a range of gun policies supported by the Obama administration, including universal background checks, a ban on military-style assault weapons and stronger federal penalties for gun trafficking. "They know you're in touch with the people ... Speak up in your community."
Cities also can help reduce urban violence by working with the federal government to hire youths who might otherwise become involved in violent crime, Biden said. He discussed Summer Jobs +, a U.S. Department of Labor program, which hired low-income teens in a handful of cities in 2012 and is scheduled to expand to more locations this summer.
On immigration, McCain discussed the so-called "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of senators led by McCain, a Republican, and Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, who have been meeting regularly since January to create a viable approach to immigration reform. At the city leaders' conference, McCain reiterated his support for an immigration reform bill that would bind a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States with strict border security. He said any solution would need a national employment verification system to vet potential hires' citizenship status.
"I am guardedly confident that we can reach an agreement that the majority of the American people will support," McCain said.
Cities could aid the reform effort by more aggressively targeting illegal drug use, a correlating factor in illegal immigration, McCain said. Mexican drug cartels enable the illegal smuggling of undocumented immigrants as well as guns and drugs. "So long as there's a demand for drugs, there's going to be a supply for drugs," McCain said. (The argument is not new: the Immigration Policy Center published a three-part series in 2011 by former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, in which he said border security depended on the dismantling of Mexican drug cartels and their subcontractors.)
It's no coincedence that the conference's two highest-profile speakers addressed gun violence and immigration. Both are priority issues for the NLC, which supports gun and immigration proposals that generally align with the Obama administration's positions. The group calls for background checks for all gun show sales, banning ammunition clips that carry more than 10 bullets, banning armor-piercing bullets and banning military-style assault weapons. Its immigration platform echoes McCain's and Obama's: tying border and interior security with a naturalization process for undocumented immigrants. The league's president for 2013, Marie Lopez Rogers, mayor of Avondale, Ariz., and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, is a strong proponent of federal immigration reform.
Both issues were the subject of NLC workshops earlier in the week, which paired city leaders with policy analysts. The workshop on gun control was led by a panel including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who, as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has been an outspoken critic of current federal gun laws. Nutter said American gun violence disproportionately impacts urban areas and communities of color, where the majority of shooters and victims are young black men with prior felony convictions who already know each other. Philadelphia saw 331 gun homicides in 2012, Nutter said.
Steve Hogan, mayor of Aurora, Colo., offered a contrast: He said his city of 335,000 saw 29 murders in 2012, including the 12 who died in the July mass shooting in a movie theater. (In 2011, Aurora ranked as one of Forbes' top 10 safest cities in the country.)
The cities share a common problem: murders by guns. But they diverge in terms of the types of shooters, victims and weapons as well as the frequency of murders. Nonetheless, Nutter, Hogan and others at the workshop voiced an interest in universal background checks.
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