Congressional Democrats are discussing a slate of new gun reforms in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the GOP, whose Senate leadership is awaiting word from President Donald Trump before it acts.
In addition to bills that would ban high-capacity magazines and encourage states to pass red flag laws, the House Judiciary Committee will also consider a measure to block people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from obtaining firearms.
The Disarm Hate Act — which was introduced in May in the House by Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, and is sponsored in the Senate by Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, both Democrats — would add misdemeanor hate crime convictions to the list of criteria that prohibit gun sales. It would be the first addition to the current list of 12 classes of prohibited buyers since the Lautenberg Amendment in 1997 banned gun sales to domestic abusers.
The new bill would add to background check legislation the House passed in February that is stalled because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to schedule it for debate in the upper chamber.
Supporters of the Disarm Hate Act say it is a necessary response to mass shootings like the ones in an El Paso Walmart and Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, which targeted people on the basis of ethnicity or religion.
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“This is about identifying a group of people who are particularly and demonstrably dangerous, people who have escalated their bigotry into violent crime,” said Ari Freilich, a staff attorney at the gun violence prevention group Giffords, which has endorsed the bill. “It’s a group that we know from experts are likely to escalate their crimes. People who start defacing graves go on to threats and assaults.”
The federal bill resembles a 2017 proposal in California that similarly banned people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from buying guns, which was passed with the state Legislature’s unanimous support.
While the Disarm Hate Act would add a new class of prohibited gun buyers, it is contingent upon existing state hate crime statutes for enforcement. That’s because all federal hate crimes come with a potential 10-year prison sentence, which means such convictions are already counted as felonies by the FBI’s background check system and prohibit would-be gun buyers.
And state hate crime laws vary widely. Four states lack any kind of hate crime statute, and 20 states lack misdemeanor hate crime laws that would be covered by the legislation. As a result, the new act would in practice not apply in 24 states. State laws also diverge when it comes to protecting particular classes of people. Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, and Montana apply hate crime penalties to offenses that target people on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity, but not gender or sexual orientation.
Police reports and survey data suggest that hate crimes have soared since 2014. According to FBI data released last November, police departments received approximately 7,100 hate crime reports in 2017, a 17 percent increase over the year before. It was the third consecutive year the bureau saw increases in such crimes. There is reason to believe the total number could be much higher. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which creates a national estimate based on representative survey data rather than voluntary reporting from police departments, there are approximately 250,000 hate crimes per year.
Guns were used in 43,000 hate crimes between 2010 and 2014, according to a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
“We know that hate crimes are a problem across America, [that] there’s a clear nexus between hate crimes and the use or threat to use a gun, and that perpetrators of these crimes should not be allowed to have guns in a society that wants to prevent gun violence,” said Francis Grubar, a spokesperson for Cicilline.
So far, there’s little indication that the White House or Senate might take up Cicilline’s legislation, but Freilich believes that the law could gain widespread acceptance, saying, “I view this in the same light as other policy areas that have broken through and garnered bipartisan support, like laws that disarm domestic abusers.”