White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Friday that crime in Chicago is a result of the city’s lack of morality.

At an off-camera press briefing, reporters asked her if easy access to guns had anything to do with violence in the nation’s third most populous city.

“I think that the problem there is that it’s a crime problem,” Sanders replied. “I think crime is probably driven by morality more than anything else.”

Earlier on Friday, President Donald Trump announced that he was sending federal agents to Chicago to combat crime, which he said had reached “epidemic proportions.”

Crime and killings in Chicago have reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help. 1714 shootings in Chicago this year!

Trump had hinted for months that he’d be willing to call in federal authorities to Chicago, a city of around 2.7 million residents, to address the high levels of violence.

On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he’d dispatched a newly created task force specifically to deal with gun crimes.

“The Trump Administration will not let the bloodshed go on; we cannot accept these levels of violence,” Sessions said in a release. “That’s why, under President Trump’s strong leadership, we have created the Chicago Gun Strike Force and are sending 20 more permanent ATF agents to Chicago, reallocating federal prosecutors and prioritizing prosecutions to reduce gun violence, and working with our law enforcement partners to stop the lawlessness.”

In a statement Friday, Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, criticized Huckabee’s comments as “tone-deaf” and “race-baiting,” comparing them to a controversial ad the National Rifle Association released earlier this week. Watts also accused Huckabee of ignoring reports showing that weak firearms laws in neighboring states have contributed to Chicago’s gun violence problem.

“Sarah Huckabee Sanders blew on that same dog whistle when she suggested that the morality of people in Chicago is the main cause of the city’s gun violence,” Watts said. “Let’s be clear about what she was really doing: she was questioning the morality of Black people. This is blatant racism. Coming from the highest office in our country, this is unacceptable. We all deserve better ― particularly the people of Chicago.”

Although crime in Chicago has long attracted national attention, crime in other large cities has actually outpaced Chicago’s in a number of categories. In fact, 13 cities had a higher murder rates than Chicago in 2015 ― the most recent year that uniform FBI crime-reporting data is available ― with St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit leading the nation. Cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Missouri, also had higher violent crime rates than Chicago in 2015.

And although murders jumped in Chicago last year to more than 760, a nearly 60 percent increase, cities like Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis still had higher homicide rates.

The number of murders, shootings and shooting victims in Chicago has decreased slightly over the first six months of 2017, according to Reuters.

Despite the Trump administration’s focus on law enforcement as a solution to crime, it has showed little interest in continuing the sort of police reform efforts that Obama’s Justice Department championed, including in Chicago. During the last months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division published a searing report documenting widespread unconstitutional practices in the Chicago Police Department.

Justice Department officials called for a formal legal agreement known as a consent decree, in which the police commit to reform and independent monitoring to help implement change. But Sessions has said he does not believe in police consent decrees, and suggested in February that they amounted to “harmful federal intrusion” that could “cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.”

Advocates for police reform have expressed concern that reform will not be effective without a binding agreement between the city’s police department and federal authorities. But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has suggested that transparency and accountability can be brought to the force even if the city doesn’t enter into a consent decree.

“The Sessions Justice Department walked away from the process of doing a consent decree,” Emanuel said this week. “Chicago did not walk away from doing reforms.”

This article has been updated with comment from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

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