Laws that keep guns away from people who commit hate crimes make our communities safer.
Hate is on the rise in America and internationally. In recent years, domestic neo-Nazi and other extremist groups have become emboldened to expand outward from private meetings, chat rooms, and message boards, recruiting new members through mainstream social media and gathering openly—and heavily armed—in public.
In the past decade, shooters motivated by hateful ideologies have perpetrated some of the deadliest attacks in modern US history, including mass shootings that targeted worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a historic Black church in South Carolina, and synagogues in California and Pennsylvania. In 2016, a hate-motivated extremist killed 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, FL, which was at the time the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. In 2019, a white supremacist drove to the border city of El Paso and killed 22 people and injured 22 more. When he was arrested he told law enforcement that he had come to the city with the intention of targeting “Mexicans.”
America’s dangerously weak gun safety laws make it far too easy for people fueled by violent and hateful ideologies to obtain deadly weapons to intimidate, harm, and murder members of targeted communities. In 2017, Nicholas Rasmussen, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, raised concerns about how the nation’s weak gun laws contribute to mass casualty events in particular “because our population of violent extremists has no difficulty gaining access to weapons that are quite lethal.”1
Two years later, the FBI elevated “racially motivated violent extremism” to be a top-level priority threat, singling out white supremacy as a major driver of mass casualty attacks.2 Following the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the United States Capitol, the Department of Homeland Security warned that “domestic violent extremists” like the El Paso shooter may be emboldened by the breach of the Capitol building to commit further violence.3 This violence threatens not only American lives, but also the democratic ideals our nation is built on.
The role of firearms
US federal law makes it far too easy for people with histories of violent, hate-fueled behavior to access firearms.
Research has also shown that people who have been convicted of violent hate crimes are likely to continue or escalate their conduct. In their book Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War on Those Who are Different, hate crime researchers Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt found that “individuals who commit hate crimes tend to escalate their conduct in order to ensure their message is received by the targeted individual or community.”4 They describe this trajectory of escalating violence in the context of “defensive hate crimes”—hate crimes committed by people who believe that they are defending something from outsiders or intruders, be it their neighborhood, their way of life, their country, or their religion.5
Research has found that people who commit hate crimes, particularly those who commit violent hate crimes, are much more likely to commit repeat acts of violence. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who had previously been convicted of a violent misdemeanor were nine times more likely to be charge with another violent offense after purchasing a handgun compared to people with no criminal history.6 Levin and McDevitt state that hate crimes tend to escalate to elicit the desired response of fear:
A similar extreme level of violence is present in crimes committed by those Levin and McDevitt call “mission offenders”—people who consider themselves crusaders for a cause and see themselves as waging a war against members of one or more protected groups. Offenders in this category tend to be involved in hate groups or to be heavily influenced by hate group ideology. Crimes committed by offenders in this category include the Oklahoma City bombing and the Charleston church shooting.
America is not currently doing enough to limit access to deadly weapons to people on hateful and violent trajectories. Examples abound of white supremacists, members of hate groups, and other extremists using firearms to intimidate, threaten, and attack members of vulnerable groups and ideological or political opponents.
Weak federal gun laws make it far too easy for people with significant histories of violent hate and extremism to access guns, including the assault weapons often used to perpetrate mass shootings.
A small number of states have sought to close this gap by passing laws that specifically prohibit people from accessing guns if they have been convicted of certain violent hate crimes, or by more broadly restricting firearm access by people convicted of violent crimes in general. Some states’ hate crime laws also trigger federal firearm restrictions by automatically designating violent hate crimes as felonies.8
In order to protect vulnerable communities from this violence, both states and the federal government should enact “disarm hate” laws which prohibit people convicted of violent hate crimes from acquiring and keeping firearms for at least a temporary period.
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Summary of Federal Law
Under federal law, people can become prohibited from accessing guns for a number of reasons, discussed in greater detail on our page on Firearm Prohibitions. None of these prohibitions are specific to hate crime offenses, but two of the prohibiting factors listed can apply to certain hate crime convictions.
Federal law prohibits people from accessing guns if they have been convicted of either:
- A felony punishable by more than one year in prison.
- A state-level misdemeanor punishable by more than two years in prison.
Because federal law currently has no firearm restriction specific to hate crimes, people convicted of violent hate crime misdemeanors are generally able to access guns under federal law unless their conviction was for a felony punishable by more than one year in prison or a state law misdemeanor punishable by more than two years. As a result, people convicted of serious violent hate crime misdemeanors are generally able to access guns, including assault weapons, across most of the nation.
Summary of State Law
Significant gaps in state and federal law allow people convicted of violent hate crimes to freely access deadly weapons in a majority of US states.
Only 11 states generally restrict people convicted of violent hate crimes from accessing guns under state law:
- New Jersey
- West Virginia
Minnesota also generally prohibits people convicted of hate crime assaults from accessing guns, but for a period of only three years.
State laws in a majority (28) of US states authorize people convicted of violently injuring a victim in a hate crime to lawfully purchase or possess guns immediately after conviction.
In four of these states, people convicted of violently injuring a victim in a hate crime are generally able to access guns, including assault weapons, under state law, though they would generally be subject to federal firearm restrictions because their states classify these crimes as felonies. Those states are:
- New Hampshire
In the remaining 24 states, people convicted of violently injuring a victim in a hate crime would generally be eligible to buy and keep firearms, including assault weapons, under both state and federal law. Those 24 states are:
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
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Key Legislative Elements
In addition to enacting a law to disarm those who have been convicted of violent hate crimes, several other policies can be leveraged to prevent or reduce the lethality of hate attacks.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders
Extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs) are an important tool for disarming people who pose a clear threat to public safety before they have a chance to hurt themselves or others. ERPOs authorize law enforcement agencies or family members to present sworn evidence to a court that an individual has demonstrated an extreme risk of violence with a firearm. Extreme risk laws are valuable tools for protecting victims of violent hate because they are issued based on the respondent’s dangerous, threatening, or worrying behavior—whether or not the respondent has committed a criminal act or been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
ERPO laws have already played an important role in preventing violent hate and domestic terror incidents. For example, in 2019, prosecutors in Snohomish County, Washington, successfully petitioned a judge to issue an ERPO to remove firearms from the suspected regional leader of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, who had been amassing firearms and holding firearm training “hate camps” for other Atomwaffen members in western Washington State.9
Public Carry Laws
People motivated by hate and empowered by weak public carry laws use firearms to intimidate and harass members of protected groups in public spaces. Laws that limit where and how people can carry firearms in public spaces can be used to block this type of intimidation and protect the rights of all people to safely enjoy public spaces and exercise First Amendment freedoms. States and the federal government should prohibit firearms at protests, demonstrations, government buildings, and other civic gatherings. To address more instances of firearm intimidation, states and the federal government should consider broader restrictions on openly carrying firearms, especially assault weapons, in public streets, parks, and other public spaces.
Though the majority of mass shooters display warning signs, not every person who poses a threat to public safety can be identified and disarmed before a shooting occurs. Increased regulation of military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines can help reduce the number of people killed and injured when attacks do occur.
Universal & Comprehensive Background Checks
In order to prohibit people with histories of violence from obtaining guns, a background check must be required for every gun sale. Federal law currently only requires background checks for guns sold by a federally licensed dealer, not for gun transfers between unlicensed individuals who may arrange the sale online, in person, or at a gun show.
People have taken advantage of loopholes in the country’s background check system to purchase guns they were ineligible for, which they then used to commit mass shootings. For example, In 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine African-American worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Although he should have failed a background check because of his history of unlawful controlled substance use, his background check was not processed within three days. Under federal law at the time, if an FFL who has initiated a background check has not been notified within three business days that the sale would violate federal or state laws, the dealer may proceed with the sale by default.10 In this case, the dealer proceeded to transfer the gun after the three days elapsed. Approximately two months later, the shooter used that gun to murder the churchgoers.
Extreme risk protection orders provide a proactive way to stop mass shootings and other tragedies by temporarily intervening to suspend a person’s access to firearms if they show clear warning signs of violence.
- Greg Miller, “Senior counterterrorism official expresses concern about access in U.S. to lethal weaponry,” Washington Post, December 22, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/senior-counterterrorism-official-expresses-concern-about-access-in-us-to-lethal-weaponry/2017/12/21/dad95cce-e664-11e7-833f-155031558ff4_story.html.
- Hannah Allam, “FBI Announces That Racist Violence Is Now Equal Priority To Foreign Terrorism,” NPR, February 10, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/02/10/804616715/fbi-announces-that-racist-violence-is-now-equal-priority-to-foreign-terrorism; Erin Donaghue, “Racially-motivated violent extremists elevated to “national threat priority,” FBI director says,” CBS News, February 5, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/racially-motivated-violent-extremism-isis-national-threat-priority-fbi-director-christopher-wray/.
- Department of Homeland Security, “National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin,” January 27, 2021, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/ntas/alerts/21_0127_ntas-bulletin.pdf.
- Chelsea Parsons and Eugenio Weigend Vargas, “Hate and Guns: a Terrifying Combination,” Center for American Progress, 2016, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2016/02/24/131670/hate-and-guns-a-terrifyingcombination/.
- Daniel Burke, “The four reasons people commit hate crimes,” CNN, June 12, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/02/us/who-commits-hate-crimes/index.html.
- Garen J. Wntemute, “Prior Misdemeanor Convictions As A Risk Factor For Later Violent and Firearm-related Criminal Activity Among Authorized Purchasers Of Handguns,” 280 JAMA (1998): 2083, http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/188297; Garen J Wintemute, et al., “Subsequent Criminal Activity among Violent Misdemeanants Who Seek to Purchase Handguns: Risk Factors and Effectiveness of Denying Handgun Purchase,” 285 JAMA (2001): 1019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11209172.
- Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt, Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War on Those Who Are Different (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002), p. 79
- Or as misdemeanors punishable by more than two years in prison.
- Chris Ingalls, “Police seize guns from avowed noe-Nazi in Snohomish County,” NBC King5, updated October 18, 2019, https://www.king5.com/article/news/investigations/police-seize-guns-from-avowed-neo-nazi-snohomish-county/281-400146c7-5c81-4c8d-80d6-78f877977340.
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(1).