BY MIKE LILLIS - 08/28/19
Democrats on Capitol Hill are pressing hard to adopt tougher gun laws following a pair of mass shootings this month that horrified the country and rekindled the on-again, off-again push to install higher barriers to owning firearms.
But as Congress prepares to return to Washington next month from the long summer recess, Democrats also want to go a step further to tackle another scourge they consider to be related: the threat of violent white nationalism that, according to federal law enforcers, is on the rise.
The lawmakers' ultimate goal is to strengthen the nation's hate crime laws and weed out race-based incidents of domestic terrorism. As a first step, they're pushing legislation designed to log the frequency of such cases around the country — data they say has gone neglected as the Trump administration has focused more squarely on foreign-based threats to homeland security.
"Some of us have had this concern for quite a while, that [domestic terrorism] was always second fiddle to Islamist terrorism to the homeland. And we had a difficult time getting the documentation," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday by phone.
"Ultimately we finally got an admission from the FBI that domestic terrorism was on the rise, but more importantly, it was tied more to radical right-wing extremists than it was any other group."
The Democrats are leaning on recent testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who told a Senate committee last month that "a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence."
That threat has led to new headlines following this month's mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which left 22 dead. Immediately beforehand, the suspect had allegedly posted a manifesto online warning of "race-mixing" and ascribing his motivation, in part, to a "Hispanic invasion of Texas."
Democrats, fueled by outside liberal activist groups, are responding with something like a full-court press.
On Sept. 4, even before the full Congress returns, the House Judiciary Committee will mark up legislation barring gun sales to those convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes.
Thompson is staging a roundtable on domestic terrorism next week in Pittsburgh, where a lone gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs killed 11 people at a synagogue last October. He's also planning a full committee hearing on white nationalism next month, with invited testimony from Wray, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and officials from the National Counterterrorism Center.
And he's pushing legislation — passed unanimously through his committee last month — to require the administration to provide annual public reports on cases of domestic terror and violent white nationalism.
"We hope to at least set the informational record straight by getting the data and giving communities the opportunity to help formulate the strategy to address it," Thompson said.
Thompson said he expects the full House to vote on the proposal next month, though a senior Democratic aide said Tuesday that no such vote is yet scheduled.
At the center of the debate is President Trump, who has come under fire since even before taking office for his penchant for attacking women, immigrants and other minority groups, fueling concerns from advocates and Democratic critics that the president is fanning the flames of the white nationalist movement — with sometimes deadly results.
The debate drew national attention two years ago amid a series of white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Va., where a counterprotester was killed by an avowed white supremacist from Ohio. James Alex Fields pleaded guilty to 29 counts of federal hate crime charges in March and was sentenced in June to life in prison.
Trump, in his initial reaction, decried the Charlottesville violence but said there were "very fine people" on both sides of the rally, leading to charges the president was espousing a moral equivalence between the hate groups and those who gathered to protest them.
Trump's rhetoric came under the spotlight again this month in the wake of the El Paso shooting. The suspect's manifesto, Democrats said, echoed the anti-immigrant language frequently used by the president — a charge Trump vehemently denied.
"Everything is multi-determined, [but] there's clearly a Trump effect in that so many people who were underground, kept things quiet through fear of great public disapproval have felt legitimized, empowered, by so much of Trump's language," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said Tuesday in a phone call. "This has been the most comfortable time to be a blatant white supremacist in America in a long time."
Beyer is pushing legislation, similar to Thompson's, that would provide state-based grants to bolster the reporting of hate crimes, strengthen support services for victims and train local law enforcers in managing bias-based cases. He's pointing to a recent Washington Post analysis that found that police investigated more than 200 bias-based crimes last year, but federal authorities prosecuted only three of them as hate crimes.
"From Muslims to Jews to people of color, the number of hate crimes is on the rise," he said. "Having this No-Hate Crime [bill] in place, we'd have much better reporting.
"You can't manage what you don't measure."
Democrats have a long way to go, however, to enact the changes they're pursuing. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised a "discussion" on tougher gun laws following the El Paso shooting, there's been little talk in the upper chamber of seeking to address the rise of white nationalism. Even Thompson isn't holding his breath for the Senate to take action.
"I don't have any confidence at this point that the Senate will do anything to address any facet related to domestic terrorism," he said, "whether it's some look at guns, some look at gun ownership, or some look at the documented growth of radical right-wing extremism in this country."