He also noted that the department in President Biden’s budget request is seeking to increase civil rights funding by $33 million, and is requesting a $232 million increase in funding to help combat gun violence. The department, he said, intends to offer more grant funding for intervention programs and push for improved background checks and more comprehensive red-flag laws.
“Gun deaths continue to occur at a staggering rate in our country,” Garland said. “There is more that we can do to make our communities safer. This is both a law enforcement and a public health issue.”
Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) signaled early that some of the budget proposals would face resistance — particularly on gun control and civil rights enforcement aimed at local police departments.
“I’m concerned that if implemented, this budget would irresponsibly invest taxpayer dollars in initiatives that lack the proper grounding and evidence or insights such as the highly questionable gun buyback schemes,” Aderholt said, adding later, “If the Department of Justice truly wants to address gun crime, it must not waste his precious resources on these liberal feel-good programs like gun buybacks and incentives for lessening restrictions that infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Later in the hearing, Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) asked Garland if he was creating a “gun confiscation” program in advocating buybacks of weapons. Garland said he was not.
“At the bottom, it’s totally a voluntary program with respect to the purchase,” Garland said. “With respect to people who are not permitted to have the gun, that’s up to each state as to how to deal with this.”
The appearance was Garland’s first before lawmakers on Capitol Hill since he was confirmed as attorney general, and while it was ostensibly focused on the budget, he faced wide-ranging questions, including on border security, voter ID laws and marijuana enforcement. He mostly restated his previous public positions. For example, he said he did not think it was worthwhile for the department to expend resources pursuing marijuana cases against users or in instances where the substance is “regulated by the state,” but the department was concerned with “transnational operations of large amounts coming from Mexico.”
He appeared via video from the Justice Department, his testimony occasionally interrupted because he was inadvertently muted.
Garland’s focus on domestic terrorism is hardly a surprise. At his confirmation hearing, Garland said his first order of business would be the investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as he broadly vowed to confront the threat of domestic terrorism. His first significant trip as attorney general was to Oklahoma City, where he spoke at a ceremony to remember the people killed in the 1995 bombing of a federal building there. The blast, which killed 168 people, remains one of the deadliest domestic terrorist attacks in U.S. history. It occurred when Garland was last at the Justice Department, and he supervised prosecutors on the case.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Garland said terrorists now have more ready access to lethal weapons because of the Internet, and encryption allows them to communicate more quickly and with greater secrecy than they did before.
“So we have an emerging and accelerating threat, and the department is putting its resources into defending the country with respect to both,” Garland said.
Federal prosecutors are pursuing more than 400 cases against people involved in the Capitol riot, and they signaled in a recent court filing that they expect to bring at least 100 more. The probe is one of the largest in U.S. history, prosecutors have said, and Justice has had to use lawyers from across the country to manage the workload.
In his early months on the job, Garland has also shown that he is focused on civil rights, and has taken a dramatically different tack than his predecessors in the Trump administration on issues of local policing.
Garland rescinded a directive from the former president’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, that restricted the department’s use of court-enforced consent decrees to implement changes at local law enforcement agencies, and already, he has announced two wide-ranging investigations by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division into police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville that might ultimately lead to such agreements.
The Justice Department under President Donald Trump had nearly stopped using its muscle to investigate police departments and compel changes to discriminatory or other bad practices, as some conservatives see such moves as an inappropriate federal intrusion in local matters. Aderholt said Tuesday he harbored “concerns” that Garland had revived “the Obama administration’s heavy-handed, constitutionally troubling and questionably effective approach to consent decrees.”