In-Depth: Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC) Chair and Vice Chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force David N. Cicilline (D-RI) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to prohibit the sale of firearms to individuals convicted of hate crimes:
“Over and over again we have seen what happens when a convicted white supremacist, white nationalist, or neo-Nazi is able to purchase a gun. This bill closes the Hate Crimes Loophole and makes it much harder for someone to give voice to their hatred in a volley of gunfire. It’s just common sense. If you’ve been convicted of a hate crime, you don’t get to buy a gun. Full stop.”
When he introduced this bill in the 115th Congress, Rep. Cicilline said:
“If you commit a hate crime, you shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun. Period. There is a clear link between these horrific hate crimes and gun violence. We know that those who commit hate crimes become increasingly violent as time goes on. No American family should have to suffer because of this loophole. Let’s disarm hate once and for all.”
Last Congress, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who has sponsored the Senate version of this legislation in both the 115th and 116th Congresses, said:
"If you’ve been convicted of a crime based on hate, you should have zero access to a gun. It’s not complicated. It is time for Congress to step up to the horrors of gun violence. If we care about the safety and security of our communities, it’s imperative that we put measures in place to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”
Chelsea Parsons, Vice President of Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress, expresses her organization’s support for this legislation:
“Hate crimes and acts of violent extremism have a deeply damaging impact not just on the most proximate victims but on the entire community targeted in an attack. Guns are the weapon of choice in far too many of these incidents and their use causes tremendous harm to historically vulnerable communities, both when they are used as instruments of murder and as tools to threaten and intimidate. This bill is a crucial measure to help ensure that individuals with a demonstrated history of hate-fueled criminal conduct do not continue to have easy access to guns.”
Giffords — the gun safety organization led by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was shot during a constituent meeting in Tucson, Arizona in 2011 — has also expressed its support for this bill. Former Rep. Giffords says:
“Our nation’s heart has been broken too many times by hate-fueled acts of violence. It’s led Americans to be afraid that how they pray or who they are is enough for someone to target them. This tragic reality should shake our country to its core. I applaud Senator Casey and Representative Cicilline for standing up to the emboldened forces of hatred and bigotry. Political violence and hate speech have no place in our society. This legislation is a critical step to confronting the realities of hatred in America, and actively working to make it harder for dangerous people fueled by hate to access firearms and murder innocent people.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes this bill. Its former spokesperson, Dana Loesch, called this legislation “redundant” and claimed that it’d lead to “unconstitutional confiscations” of firearms. In June 2019, she also argued that it would be unconstitutional (however, given that laws prohibiting individuals convicted of violent misdemeanors from buying guns have repeatedly been upheld by the courts, this is doubtful). Loesch also claimed that this proposal is redundant with existing law; however, Media Matters for America notes that only 30 states currently have “misdemeanor hate crime” definitions and only six of those states prevent someone convicted of such a crime from purchasing a firearm.
On the June 10 edition of her NRATV show, “Relentless,” Loesch also suggested that a hate crime definition isn’t actually necessary because “all crime is hate” and argued that lawmakers are trying to create too many classifications of felonies:
“[I]t seems redundant. I mean, you know, hate crime -- all crime is hate, that’s almost an entirely separate issue here, but there is a larger discussion that has been taking place in the country with lawmakers trying to create even more classifications of felonies. I know that there is a crime-a-day account on Twitter that I love to look at every single day. There are so many things that people are doing every day that they don’t even realize or see that they don’t even realize are felonies. If someone commits one of the acts that’s already under law as being so awful that you become ineligible to have a firearm, I mean, doesn’t that really cover it? It seems like he’s kind of creating a redundancy also.”
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, notes the difficulty of defining a misdemeanor hate crime and the potential for anti-gun activists to use this legislation to target law-abiding gun owners. In an email to GunsAmerica, Gottlieb said:
“The devil is in the details. Who defines what a misdemeanor hate crime is? Is protesting and calling an anti-gun politician an ugly name a hate crime?... I have no doubt that this will get out of hand and only disenfranchise legitimate firearms ownership. Congressman David N. Cicilline (RI-01) who is the sponsor of this legislation has a track record of demonizing guns and gun owners.”
After deadly shootings in August 2019 reignited the debate over gun reform, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) announced plans to reconvene his committee on September 4, before Congress’ recess is over, to consider several gun bills. In a statement announcing the markup hearing, Rep. Nadler named this bill among the legislation that’ll be considered by the committee on that date:
“On September 4th, the Judiciary Committee will take additional steps to address gun violence by marking up the Keep Americans Safe Act which would ban high capacity ammunition magazines that are a particularly dangerous feature of the assault weapons often used in mass shootings. In Dayton, the shooter used a magazine capable of holding 100 rounds. We will also mark up the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, to prevent those deemed a risk to themselves or others from accessing firearms, as well as the Disarm Hate Act, which would prevent those convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing firearms. We won’t stop there. We will also hold a hearing on September 25th to consider ways to address the dangers posed by assault weapons. These should not be partisan issues, and it is my hope we can move forward on these matters with support on both sides of the aisle, including the President.”
In another statement, Rep. Nadler said:
“For far too long, politicians in Washington have only offered thoughts and prayers in the wake of gun violence tragedies. Thoughts and prayers have never been enough. To keep our communities safe, we must act.”
The GOP-held Senate, however, has resisted calls to return early from its summer break to address gun violence. Additionally, although the Democratic-led House approved two billso expand the FBI’s background check system in February 2019 by a party-line vote, the Senate has yet to take up those two bills or any other gun-related legislation thus far in the current session of Congress.
After the El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio mass shootings in August 2019, President Trump indicated potential support for strengthening background checks for guns and creating “red flag” laws. However, as of mid-August 2019, he had yet to endorse any specific measures. Instead, his recent comments have focused on preventing people with mental illnesses from accessing weapons.
This legislation passed the House Judiciary Committee by a 23-15 party-line vote with the support of 158 Democratic House cosponsors in the 116th Congress and is set to be considered by the House Judiciary Committee on September 4, 2019 (see above discussion for context). Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), has 15 Democratic Senate cosponsors and hasn’t received a committee vote. It is also supported by Giffords, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The NRA opposes it.
In the 115th Congress, this bill had 46 Democratic House cosponsors. Its Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Casey, had 11 Democratic Senate cosponsors. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Of Note: Rep. Cicilline’s office notes that “[a] misdemeanor hate crime, which can include menacing or assault, is often a precursor for more severe attacks.” In a 2014 study, researchers at Indiana State University found that since 2011, lone wolf terrorists have increasingly turned to high-powered guns over explosives as their weapon of choice.
After over a decade of decline, hate crimes (defined as crimes committed on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity) have been on the rise in the U.S. since 2015. According to Dept. of Justice (DOJ) data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Hate Crime Statistics program analyzed by USAFacts, the number of hate crimes committed each year declined from 10,706 offenses in 1996 to 6,418 in 2014. Then, it began rising in 2015 to a decade-high of 8,437 offenses in 2017.
In 2017, over half of hate crimes were committed on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin. That year, blacks, Jews and gay males were the three most likely groups to be targeted for hate crimes. Anti-black offenses, which represented 28% of all hate crimes in 2017, were about twice as common as anti-Jewish and anti-gay male offenses. The 40% in anti-Jewish hate crimes (from 695 offenses in 2015 to 976 in 2017) was nearly double the overall growth in hate crimes (22% over the same 2015-2017 time period).
These are only a few cases of recent gun-enabled hate crimes, including a pair of shootings that occurred on a single weekend in August 2019 and reignited the debate on gun violence in the United States, as discussed above:
- The summer 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a man acting out his anti-LGBTQ prejudices massacred 49 people, most of whom were people of color;
- White supremacist Dylann Roof’s mass murder of nine African-American people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015; and
- A man killed one Indian man and seriously wounded another after shouting racial slurs at them in a bar in Olathe, Kansas in 2017.
- A gunman opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six people in Milwaukee in 2012;
- 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, who wrote an anti-immigrant document espousing white nationalist and racist views, and who police believe targeted Latinos in his killing spree, killed 22 and injured 24 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas on Saturday, August 3, 2019; and
- A day after the El Paso shooting, Connor Betts, whose Twitter account retweeted extreme left-wing and anti-police posts, as well as tweets supporting Antifa protestors, killed nine people in a shooting in the Oregon District of Dayton, Ohio.
In some of these cases, the shooters had track records which raised red flags that arguably should have warranted preventing them from purchasing guns. For example, Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, was interviewed by the FBI twice about his suspected ties to the Islamic State militant group and allegiance to ISIS. Similarly, Roof, the Charleston church shooter, should have been disqualified from purchasing a gun because he had previously admitted to illegal drug use (however, the background check examiner missed the charge and didn’t complete his check within the three day time limit, so Roof was able to purchase the gun — this loophole, now referred to the “Charleston Loophole,” is the subject of multiple pieces of legislation in the 116th Congress that’d close it, including the FAST NICS Act and the 21st Century NICS Act).
An August 2019 article in The Lancet notes that “the epicentre of nearly every mass shooting in the USA is a man” who is “[a]ngry and socially disengaged,” finding solace in “racist or extremist ideologies online.” It observes that while “the lay public and politicians have perhaps too quickly labelled mental illness as a catch-all precipitant” for gun violence, there are larger systemic issues — namely anti-immigrant rhetoric by politicians, the weaponization of the First and Second Amendments (which respectively protect free speech and guarantee the right to bear arms), white nationalist sentiment, racism and sexism — that are also at play, and which must be considered in any strategy to stem gun violence.
In addition to this bill, Rep. Cicilline has reintroduced a number of other gun violence-related bills from the 115th Congress in the current session. They include:
- Assault Weapons Ban (H.R. 1296): Bans the sale, transfer, production, and importation of all semi-automatic rifles and pistols that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature.
- High Speed Gunfire Prevention Act (H.R. 3606): Prohibits possession, manufacture, shipment, or transport of a trigger crank, a bump-fire stock, or any device that is designed or functions to accelerate the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun.
- Untraceable Firearms Act (H.R.3553): Prohibits the manufacture or possession of plastic 3-D guns that would be undetectable by traditional security measures like metal detectors and “ghost guns” that are untraceable because they are assembled with parts that do not have a serial number.
- Unlawful Gun Buyer Alert Act (H.R. 3552): Requires notice to the local FBI field office and state/local law enforcement agencies when a firearm is transferred to a person who is subsequently determined to be prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm.
- End Purchase of Firearms by Dangerous Individuals Act (H.R.3554): Requires states to establish a reporting system for mental health professionals concerning individuals who 1) are committed to a mental institution on a voluntary basis, or who are temporarily committed or held on an involuntary basis, and who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others; or 2) communicate a serious threat of violence against another individual who is reasonably identifiable to a mental health professional.
Summary by Eric Revell and Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / South_agency)