Last Thursday, US Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) announced the introduction of new gun control legislation at a Center for American Progress (CAP) panel session on their new report “Hate and Guns.” The bill, which seeks to ban the sale of firearms to any person convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime, aims to close a loophole in an existing gun law. According to a press release on the congressman’s website, “Although convicted felons are currently prohibited from purchasing or possessing a gun under federal law, and thirty states already have misdemeanor-level hate crimes or sentence enhancements in place, there are only six states that bar individuals convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from buying a gun.”
The proposed law directly corresponds to the policy recommendation in CAP’s report—a proposal to “keep guns out of the hands of hate criminals”—and fits into the larger discussion of the pervasive impact of hate crimes, domestic terrorism, and the increasing use of firearms to perpetrate these acts of violence.
Cicilline was joined by three other panelists—Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); Steven Hawkins, civil and human rights advocate; and Mayor Steve Scaffidi of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at CAP, moderated the panel.
According to Potok, hate crimes are on the rise in the United States since President Obama’s election in 2008 and in the wake of the current presidential election, with “the Republican primaries pouring vitriol and hate into the political mainstream.” Potok’s research, as documented in the SPLC’s latest issue of Intelligence Report, suggests that this trend can largely be attributed to the tension of demographic changes and the “transition to a multiracial democracy,” as the non-Hispanic white population is due to lose their majority by 2043 according to the US Census Bureau’s projections. This insecurity in the white middle class population is fueled by the influx of immigration during an uncertain and tough economy, liberal victories on progressive issues like same-sex marriage, and the rhetoric of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, who two brothers in Boston cited as their inspiration for severely beating a homeless Hispanic man last August.
Additionally, an additional 108 hate groups sprang up in the United States between 2014 and 2015, for a total of 892 US hate groups—and the number of Ku Klux Klan chapters increased from 72 to 190 in the same time period, provoked by the Confederate flag debate in South Carolina following the racially motivated massacre of nine churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Hate crimes are notoriously difficult to measure because of underreporting by victims (approximately only one out of three crimes are reported) and by law enforcement agencies to the FBI, because they don’t want their municipalities to be perceived as racist or otherwise prejudiced. Additionally, even when hate crimes are reported, they aren’t always prosecuted as hate crimes (which may decrease the scope of the proposed bill) because it’s easier to prove physical assault than it is to prove motive (though this isn’t supposed to deter police agencies from reporting ostensible hate crimes, no matter how the case is prosecuted). In the FBI’s 2014 Hate Crime Statistics Report, as cited by Hawkins during the panel discussion, Mississippi vastly underreported its number of hate crimes, with just a single hate crime reported by the seventy-five participating agencies. “No one in this room believes there was only one hate crime in Mississippi [in 2014],” he noted.
Mississippi is not a singular case. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 250,000 hate crimes occur each year, which CAP’s report estimates is 25-40 times greater than one would think from reading the FBI’s reports.
More alarmingly, of the hate crimes that occurred between 2010 and 2014, CAP calculates that around 43,000 involved a gun, representing a trend towards use of firearms over explosives by domestic “lone wolf” terrorists. This is consistent with the Anti-Defamation League’s 2015 report, which found that the number of Americans killed by domestic terrorists in events similar to those that occurred in Charleston, Chattanooga, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino was higher than in any other year since 1995 (the year of the Oklahoma City bombing). SPLC found that 59 percent of domestic terrorist attacks between 2009 and 2015 were perpetrated with a gun, and guns are much more convenient for a “lone wolf” terrorist without the backing of a terrorist group or network. Guns are easier to access and the convenience of procuring a gun heavily outweighs the risk and hassle of DIY explosives. Guns are also more lethal, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which states that “firearms are more often used in attacks aimed at causing human causalities. In the United States between 1970 and 2014, the average percentage of terrorist attacks that were lethal was 4 percent if the attack did not involve firearms and 40 percent if the attack did involve firearms.”
The increasing violence in hate crimes is certainly enough to compel national attention to gun control legislation, but the impact of a hate crime on a community often outweighs the impact of violent crimes or other causes of human mortalities. As Potok pointed out during the CAP panel, “such killings cause far greater social damage because they produce shock waves in targeted communities and also tend to split Americans along pre-existing fault lines like race.”
Yet many audience members at the panel were dismayed with Cicilline’s approach to gun control and critical of the language used by many gun control activists, believing it to be too moderate and too reasonable in the face of dominating NRA hyperbole, without bringing the Second Amendment into question. After all, a gun legally owned is just as lethal as one illegally procured, and the prevalence of open-carry guns has a chilling effect on the right to assembly.
But the panelists (or at least the politicians on hand) seemed to agree that the unfortunate political reality of Congress requires a baby-step approach, since the NRA has convinced gun owners and gun rights’ supporters that any proposed law regulating gun ownership is the start of a slippery slope towards the repeal of the Second Amendment.
However, guns are just a part of the problem and not at the crux of the systemic illness: the dated vision of the American Dream and the turbulent reality of demographic change, economic inequality, and the mistrust and hate of the “other” in the face of increasing diversity.
The solution to decreasing hate may be simpler to execute than the daunting task of enacting gun control. Scaffidi, Republican mayor of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, during the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple, talked at length about his community’s recovery. Two days after the shooting, still without all the details of the crime, community members came together at a local park to share stories of the lives of the victims and to begin healing. Scaffidi urged dialogue and intercommunal bridge-building to increase trust in the multicultural society. More importantly, he emphasized the responsibility of elected officials to call out hate crimes. “If it looks like a hate crime it probably is,” he stated. “There are way too many elected officials …who are not brave. They live election to election, they’re there for whatever reason they’re there, but they’re not brave men or women. That has to change.”
Recording of the session can be found here.