Plans to tighten domestic terrorism laws by making a distinct crime under law have draw concerns for civil liberties groups.
Amid a swell of mass shootings, white nationalist killings and hate crimes in the United States, lawmakers around the nation have introduced a number of proposed laws – some controversial – to clamp down on the violence.
Last year, hate crimes rose by nine percent in 30 large American cities, according to the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
In August alone, the Gun Violence Archive recorded at least 29 mass shootings claiming at least 66 lives in states around the country.
In El Paso, Texas, a far-right, anti-immigrant gunman allegedly shot dead 22 people in a Walmart on August 3. The suspect reportedly published a manifesto blaming “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” on an anonymous messaging board just moments before carrying out the bloodshed.
Last weekend, a mass shooting in Odessa and Midland—two cities in Texas—killed at least seven people and left more than 20 injured.
That deadly rampage brought the total tally of mass shooting killings this year to 25, the same that took place during the previous year, according to an AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University database.
Faced with growing pressure to act, lawmakers have introduced several legislative proposals for tackling the violence, many of which critics are worryingly shortsighted or fall short of implementing effective policy changes.
TRT World has broken down some of the proposals lawmakers are pushing or signing into law in response to the violence.
Domestic terrorism bills
On August 16, US Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill last month seeking to criminalise domestic terrorism in the US.
Introduced in response to the El Paso massacre, the law, if passed, would make domestic terrorism a crime of its own category with specific penalties.
At present, domestic terrorism is considered a crime under federal law but does not carry defined criminal penalties.
Schiff introduced the proposed legislation in the wake of the deadly El Paso attack.
Two Republican-sponsored bills in the US House of Representatives and the Senate propose similar measures.
Some watchdogs and advocacy groups, however, have warned that Schiff’s bill – or other measures designed to expand law enforcement powers – could harm marginalised communities, among them people of colour and religious minorities.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is one of the organisations speaking out against Schiff’s bill.
In an open letter, the ACLU pointed to the USA Patriot Act, legislation passed in 2001 after the deadly September 11 attacks.
The US Justice Department, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies have “unfairly targeted” people of colour, political dissidents exercising constitutionally-protected speech and “other marginalised communities”, the ACLU said.
This has created “discriminatory investigations and prosecutions, watch lists, and surveillance” for many groups, among them American Muslims.
“The FBI has used domestic terrorism authorities to spy upon Muslim communities, including by infiltrating their places of worship,” the open letter continues.
The new bill would “entrench these by creating more harmful and unnecessary authorities,'' the letter concludes.
Texas executive orders
Only a day after the Odessa and Midland mass killings, relaxed gun laws went into effect in Texas.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott had signed new laws allowing gun owners to carry their weapons on school grounds and at churches, among other places, and forbidding cities from introducing additional restrictions on the sales of guns and ammunition.
Abbott and his fellow Republicans have attempted to focus the blame for gun violence on issues including mental health and video games, while vehemently defending gun rights.
But on Thursday, Abbott signed eight executive orders in response to the mass killings in El Paso, Odessa and Midland.
“I will continue to work expeditiously with the legislature on laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals, while safeguarding the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans,” he said, referring to the right to bear arms, as reported by Texas Tribune.
The orders embolden law enforcement agencies’ ability to respond to shootings, while improving information-sharing channels between agencies and from the public to agencies.
One order will offer additional training for law enforcement, while another will integrate the work of mental health professionals and school districts into regional teams including law enforcement.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has passed a bill designed to expand background checks for gun purchases, but it remains unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate will approve it.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, announced that Congressional Republicans are waiting for US President Donald Trump to move forward on gun control.
“The administration is in the process of studying what they’re prepared to support, if anything,” McConnell said, although Trump has casted doubt on the efficacy of background checks.
“For the most part, sadly, if you look at the last four or five (shootings) going back even five or six or seven years … as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it,” Trump said on Sunday.
“So it’s a big problem. It’s a mental problem. It’s a big problem.”
At the time of publication, the White House has not responded to TRT World’s request for comment on Trump’s plans.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, has introduced in the Senate a bill strengthening “red flag” laws, which permit courts from revoking gun rights from people dubbed a danger to themselves or others.
But some leading Democrats have criticised that bill as falling short of the mark.
“The notion that passing a tepid version of an Extreme Risk Protection Order bill – alone – is close to getting the job done in addressing rampant gun violence in the U.S. is wrong and would be an ineffective cop-out,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
A Democrat from New York, Schumer said that strengthened red flags laws “won’t be fully effective without strong universal background checks”.
Death penalty measures
The White House and the Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General William Barr, are working to expedite death penalties for perpetrators found guilty of executing mass shootings.
With Vice President Mike Pence, Barr has drafted a legislation crafted to speed up the death penalty for people convicted of carrying out mass shootings.
Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, who is hoping to oust Trump in the 2020 presidential vote, described the death penalty measure as “what you do when you can’t get something done that’s rational – you increase the penalty for the irrational,” Bloomberg recently reported.
Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke, also running for the Democratic nomination, has dismissed the death penalty proposal as immoral and ineffective.
Instead, O’Rourke has proposed a mandatory buyback programme in which the government would purchase assault weapons from gun owners in order to get them off the streets.
The death penalty proposal is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to revive the federal death penalty, which has not been implemented since 2003.
Those efforts are likely to face legal challenges from rights groups and advocacy organisations opposed to capital punishment.
Thirty states in the US still permit the death penalty, however.
Robert Dunham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, said that “expediting executions will do nothing to address the problem” of mass shootings.
“Focusing on the death penalty as a response to mass shootings actually diverts energy and attention from remedies that could make difference,” he told TRT World, describing such proposals as “counterproductive”.
A new survey on red flag laws found that the majority of Americans – whether Republicans or Democrats – support such measures when an individual presents a risk to themselves or others.
Published last month, the APM Research Lab/Guns & America/Call To Mind survey concluded that 77 percent of Americans back laws allowing family members to petition judges to remove weapons from the possession of dangerous individuals.
That survey also found that 70 percent of Americans polled back allowing law enforcement to take guns from such individuals.
A Quinnipiac poll published in May found that 61 percent of those polled supported stronger gun laws. That poll, however, demonstrated a sharp partisan divide: 91 percent of Democrats backed stronger gun laws, while 32 percent of Republicans supported them.
For his part, Robert Spitzer, author of several books about gun reform in the US, expects Trump to continue aligning his policies with gun lobby groups like the National Rifle Association.
“He’s been right with them on the gun issue,” Spitzer told TRT World, despite the “growing support” for red flag laws in recent years.