Disarm Hate: the Deadly Intersection of Guns and Hate Crimes

May 13, 2019

In an average year, over 10,300 hate crimes in the United States involve a firearm—more than 28 each day. And reports indicate that hate crimes are on the rise.

But in most of the US, some people convicted of hate crimes can still legally buy or possess guns. It is more important than ever that states and the federal government pass laws ensuring that anyone who has committed a hate crime cannot arm their hate with a gun.

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Armed and hateful – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 2018

On October 27, 2018, a gunman entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue armed with an AR-15 and three handguns. He opened fire, killing 11 worshippers and injuring six more. The gunman, an active member of a social media network for white nationalists and other extremists, reportedly entered the building yelling anti-Semitic hate speech.Anti-Defamation League. Deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. https://bit.ly/2qkDPZ0. According to a statement by the Anti-Defamation League, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in US history.Ibid.

 

IN AN AVERAGE YEAR, OVER 10,300 HATE CRIMES INVOLVE A FIREARM—MORE THAN 28 EACH DAY.Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of Special Report: Hate Crime Victimization, 2004-2015. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. June 2017. https://bit.ly/2KrFyoe. To obtain the annual and daily average of violent hate crimes involving a firearm, Everytown used a 10-year average of violent hate crime victimizations (2006 to 2015) combined with the proportion of violent hate crimes involving firearms (4.5 percent). Analysis was limited to violent hate crimes perpetrated against a person or persons and does not include hate crimes against property (such as defacing a victim’s home, burglary, and vehicle theft).

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue underscores the devastating impact of arming hate. Easy access to firearms gives a single, hate-filled individual the means to shatter numerous lives and whole communities including the June 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, when a white supremacist opened fire in a church, killing nine Black worshippers,Horowitz J, Corasaniti N, Southall A. Nine killed in shooting at Black church in Charleston. New York Times. June 17, 2015. https://nyti.ms/2uGcqDb. and the June 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub, Orlando, FL, when a gunman shot and killed 49 people and injured 53, most of whom identified as LGBTQ and Latinx.Melville-Smith A, Mack D, O’Connor E, Griffin T, Georgantopoulos MA, O’Connor E, Griffin, T. A shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando killed 49 people. BuzzFeed News. June 21, 2016. https://bit.ly/2OqlfKp.

 

KEY FINDINGS

The vast majority of hate crimes are directed against communities of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.Hate Crime Statistics, 2017. Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://bit.ly/2CeBZ2M. It is important to note that the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data on hate crimes is likely an undercount because most participating law enforcement agencies do not report these data to the FBI. The FBI UCR data were used to understand bias motivations since a breakdown for single bias incidents is provided unlike the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data, which for all other purposes, is a more complete source of data for hate crime victimizations. Hate crimes are driven by prejudice against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, gender or gender identity, or other core parts of a person’s identity. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, about 58 percent of reported hate crimes were motivated by racism; nearly half of these crimes were motivated by bias against Black people.Ibid. For the remainder of hate crimes in 2017, 22 percent were motivated by religious bias, most often anti-Jewish bias.Ibid. And anti-LGBTQ bias motivated 17 percent of hate crimes in 2017.Ibid.

Hate Crime Incidents by Bias Motivation, 2017

Hate crimes against each of these groups increased in 2017, contributing to a 17 percent rise overall from 2016.Ibid. For example, reported anti-Jewish hate crimes rose by more than 37 percent between 2016 and 2017, and anti-Black hate crimes rose by nearly 16 percent.Ibid. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the current political climate has emboldened individuals to commit hate crimes and also contributed to the formation of more hate groups across the country.Southern Poverty Law Center. The year in hate: rage against change. https://bit.ly/2SYRaX1. February 20, 2019. In fact, the number of hate groups in the US increased by 30 percent between 2015 and 2018, with a 7 percent increase in 2018 alone.Ibid.

IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT STATES AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PROHIBIT CRIMINALS CONVICTED OF VIOLENT OR THREATENING MISDEMEANOR HATE CRIMES FROM BUYING OR HAVING GUNS.

Hate crimes have a devastating impact on individual victims, and the reverberating effects are experienced by entire groups and communities. For individuals struggling against bias, news of a violent hate crime targeting members of a shared identity group can feel like a personal attack. Following the Pulse nightclub shooting, LGBTQ individuals across the country reported experiencing higher levels of emotional distress and stated they would be less likely to attend safe spaces like LGBTQ nightclubs.Jackson SD. “Connection is the antidote”: psychological distress, emotional processing, and virtual community building among LGBTQ students after the Orlando shooting. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. 2017;4(2):160-168. Croff JM, Hubach RD, Currin JM, Frederick AF. Hidden rainbows: gay bars as safe havens in a socially conservative area since the Pulse nightclub massacre. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. 2017;14(2):233-240. When safe spaces no longer feel safe, entire communities suffer.

Hate crimes involving firearms were the catalyst for hate crime laws in the United States. The first major federal protections against hate crimes were enacted in the wake of the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. And the most recent enhancement of federal hate crimes laws—the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009—came after the death of Matthew Shepard.The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249. https://bit.ly/2gjhAga. Shepard’s killers, who targeted him because he was gay, beat him with a firearm and left him to die.Sheerin J. Matthew Shepard: the murder that changed America. BBC News. October 26, 2018. https://bbc.in/2O7XR2r.

 

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

Current federal and state gun laws do not adequately address the problem. While all felonies are prohibiting offenses under federal law, most misdemeanors, including hate crime misdemeanors, are not. Hate crime misdemeanors can be serious, violent acts, but under federal law, a violent or threatening hate crime misdemeanor conviction does not prohibit someone from buying or having a gun. In addition, while nearly half of the states have laws closing this gap, most states do not.22 states and the District of Columbia prohibit gun possession by all people who have been convicted of hate-crime assault. Four of these states have gun laws specifically targeting misdemeanor hate crimes (CA, MA, MN, NJ), while 16 punish hate-crime assault as a felony, resulting in firearm prohibition (DE, ID, IL, MD, MI, MO, MT, NE, NH, NY, PA, SD, TN, WA, WI, WV). Two states (CT, HI) and DC prohibit gun possession by all people convicted of assault, regardless of motivation. This means that in much of the country a person convicted of a violent hate crime could legally pass a background check and purchase and possess a firearm.

Passage of the Disarm Hate Act [H.R. 2708/S. 1462] can close this dangerous gap. This bill would amend federal law to prohibit firearm sale or transfer to and receipt or possession by any individual who was convicted of violent or threatening misdemeanor crimes committed against someone based on their perceived or actual race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

States should pass laws to prohibit people convicted of hate crimes from buying or having a gun and should take additional steps to keep guns out of the hands of all people convicted of violent crimes. States should pass laws prohibiting people convicted of hate crimes from having guns. At a minimum, these laws should prohibit anyone convicted of a violent hate crime, like assault or battery, from having guns. States should also protect public safety by ensuring that all people convicted of recent violent misdemeanor crimes are prohibited from having guns. A recent study found that violent misdemeanor laws were associated with a nearly 27 percent reduction in firearm homicide rates.Siegel M, Boine C. What are the most effective policies in reducing gun homicides? https://bit.ly/2YPAz7P. Rockefeller Institute of Government. March 2019.

States can also pass Extreme Risk laws to help prevent access to guns by people who have exhibited serious warning signs that they are a threat to others, including those who are motivated by bias. Extreme Risk laws give family members and law enforcement a way to intervene before warning signs escalate into tragedies. Under these laws, a petitioner can obtain a court order—often known as an extreme risk protection order (ERPO)—to temporarily remove guns from a dangerous situation.

An Everytown original analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2017 revealed that in 51 percent of incidents the shooter exhibited warning signs that they posed a risk to themselves or others before the shooting, and the bias-motivated shooters in Orlando and Charleston were no exception.Everytown for Gun Safety. Mass shootings in the United States: 2009-2017. https://every.tw/1XVAmcc. December 2018. The Charleston shooter told a friend about his violent plans,Associated Press. Friend of accused Charleston, SC, church shooter pleads guilty to lying. Los Angeles Times. April 29, 2016. https://lat.ms/2JsChqD. was known to abuse drugs,Police report on drug charges against Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof. Washington Post. https://wapo.st/2JuQX8P. and posted a document online indicating that he had plans to commit violence.Dylann Roof’s manifesto. New York Times. December 13, 2016. https://nyti.ms/2VqmBey. Similarly, the Pulse nightclub shooter was physically violent towards his ex-wife,Goldman A, Warrick J, Bearak M. “He was not a stable person”: Orlando shooter showed signs of emotional trouble. Washington Post. June 12, 2016. http://wapo.st/2ljMvy1. and a colleague indicated that the shooter had threatened to kill people.Perez E, Prokupecz S, Shoichet CE, Hume T. Omar Mateen: angry, violent “bigot” who pledged allegiance to ISIS. CNN. June 14, 2016. http://cnn.it/1UQA2I5. The fact that these mass shooters displayed warning signs prior to their acts of hate violence highlights the opportunities to intervene and prevent these tragedies.