Because of its multifaceted nature, gun reform is a policy area that doesn’t currently have a specific federal agency focused on it. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), which tracks illegal guns and issues licenses, sits within the Department of Justice. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which traditionally researches the public health effects of gun violence, sits within the Department of Health and Human Services. And research on school safety amid rampant mass shootings is the responsibility of the Department of Education.
Due to this siloing of responsibility, it can be hard for the government to coordinate holistic solutions to the crisis. To solve it, March for Our Lives, the youth-led gun reform advocacy group founded by survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, is recommending that Joe Biden be the first president to appoint a cabinet-level position dedicated to gun violence prevention.
Because of the existing government structure, the potential appointee would not technically be a cabinet secretary, but “cabinet-adjacent”: holding the same power but coordinating across agencies. The national director of gun violence prevention would work with and report directly to the president.
“March for Our Lives did not exist the last time that we had an administration in power that was even willing to sit down at the table with us,” says Eve Levenson, March for Our Lives’ policy and government affairs manager. But, as 40,000 people each year consistently die from gun-related deaths—and as gun sales and certain types of gun violence have escalated during the coronavirus pandemic, the group argues it’s time for a bolder solution. It would also serve as a way to hold accountable an administration whose campaign repeatedly made firm promises about gun reform action.
Other national advocacy groups have echoed the call. Brady: United Against Gun Violence is recommending the same position. “This degree of coordination and resource management cannot be accomplished without the guidance of a designated director,” it says in its action report. Similarly, Everytown for Gun Safety has called for a national gun czar, and Giffords for an interagency task force.
While the day-to-day activities of the director would have to be determined once the position is created, Levenson says the organization hopes that the director would spend time breaking down silos between agencies so that communication and coordination of goals are clearer, and that data is disseminated across agencies more smoothly.
One of the concrete objectives is to increase the CDC budget for research on gun violence from $25 million to $250 million, and to do so early enough in the administration to create ample time to analyze the data and follow with action. (That research only just resumed this year for the first time since 1996, after Congress dismantled an obscure law that banned it.) Actions to follow would ideally include addressing firearm suicides, strengthening licensing, and reinforcing the background check system, according to the organization’s press release.
March for Our Lives is also calling for the recruitment of a second position, a director of youth engagement, which would sit on the Domestic Policy Council, a group made up of the secretaries and some additional participants who offer counsel to the president on executing effective domestic policy. Levenson is adamant that that person should be from Generation Z, so that White House policymaking has a representative from a generation that’s “grown up traumatized by school shooter drills,” she says. The group would want that person to swiftly organize a youth summit and a listening tour to ensure the administration listens to young people who “might not have the ability or the lexicon to speak in terms of policy, but whose perspectives need to be taken into account.”
Levenson says the group doesn’t have specific personnel recommendations for either role, but says they should be people who’ve been affected personally by guns and who are educated on the various prevalent forms of gun violence in America, including suicides, urban homicides, and mass shootings.
The group has been in communication with Biden’s transition team, Levenson says, but has not yet received an indication about the likelihood of the positions being created. Levenson remains optimistic, especially as she’s confident the role wouldn’t need congressional approval because it’s not technically a cabinet position.
Ultimately, the role is not a deal breaker, though. Levenson says that March for Our Lives is still happy to have a seat at the table with a sympathetic administration. “These positions are something we want,” she says. “But . . . if we don’t get them, they will not be a reason that we stop working with the administration.”