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. 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.18Anti-Defamation League, “Deadly Shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue,” https://bit.ly/2qkDPZ0.
In an average year, more than 10,300 hate crimes in the U.S. involve a firearm–more than 28 every day.
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,1Jason Horowitz, Nick Corasaniti, and Ashley Southall, “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.2Alicia Melville-Smith et al., “A shooting at a Gay Nightclub in Orlando Killed 49 People,” BuzzFeed News, June 21, 2016, https://bit.ly/2OqlfKp.
The vast majority of hate crimes are directed against communities of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ+ people.3Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime Data Explorer: Hate Crime in the United States,” accessed January 13, 2022, https://bit.ly/3Gsb3v1. It is important to note that the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data on hate crimes is likely an undercount because the vast majority of participating law enforcement agencies do not report these data to the FBI. The FBI UCR data were used to understand bias motivations because it contains a breakdown for single bias incidents 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 2020, the most recent year for which data are available, 63 percent of reported hate crimes were motivated by racism; more than half of these crimes were motivated by bias against Black people. For the remainder of hate crimes in 2020, 15 percent were motivated by religious bias, most often anti-Jewish bias. And anti-LGBTQ+ bias motivated 17 percent of hate crimes in 2020.4Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Hate Crime in the United States.”
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. In fact, the number of hate groups in the US increased by 30 percent between 2014 and 2018, with a 7 percent increase in 2018 alone.5Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Year in Hate: Rage Against Change, February 20, 2019, https://bit.ly/2SYRaX1.
Hate Crimes by Bias Motivation, 2020
Last updated: 1.27.2022
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.6Skyler D. Jackson. “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 4, no. 2 (2017): 160–68, https://doi.org/10.1037/sgd0000229; Julie M. Croff JM et al., “Hidden Rainbows: Gay Bars as Safe Havens in a Socially Conservative Area Since the Pulse Nightclub Massacre,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 14, no. 2 (2017): 233–40, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-017-0273-1. 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.718 U.S.C. § 249, “The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009,” https://bit.ly/2gjhAga. Shepard’s killers, who targeted him because he was gay, beat him with a firearm and left him to die.8Jude Sheerin, “Matthew Shepard: The Murder That Changed America,” BBC News, October 26, 2018. https://bbc.in/2O7XR2r.
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.922 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.10Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, What are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides?” (Rockefeller Institute of Government, March 29, 2019), https://bit.ly/2YPAz7P.
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 2020 revealed that in more than half 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.11Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Twelve Years of Mass Shootings in the United States,” June 4, 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/maps/mass-shootings-in-america-2009-2019/. The Charleston shooter told a friend about his violent plans,12Associated 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,13Eugene Volokh, “Dylann Roof Apparently Had Not Been Arrested for a Felony a Month Before He Went Through a Gun Purchase Background Check,” Washington Post, July 11, 2015, https://wapo.st/3rzMtmV; Police report on drug charges against Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof, https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2106863/case-15-5592-d-roof-redacted.pdf. and posted a document online indicating that he had plans to commit violence.14“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,15Adam Goldman, Joby Warrick, and Max Bearak, “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.16Evan Perez et al., “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.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.