Introduction and summary
On August 26, 2023, a white gunman drove to a historically Black college in Jacksonville, Florida, armed with an AR-15-style rifle emblazoned with swastikas and a Glock handgun while wearing a bulletproof tactical vest.1 Per reports, after campus security turned away the 21-year-old man, he drove to a Dollar General store in a predominantly Black Jacksonville neighborhood and fatally shot three Black people while shouting racial slurs. Manifestos the shooter left behind have led the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the shooting as a hate crime and prompted the Jacksonville sheriff to say, “Plainly put, this shooting was racially motivated and he hated Black people.”2
Horrific acts of violence such as this are now all too common. The Jacksonville shooting is eerily similar to last year’s mass shooting at a grocery store in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York,3 where an 18-year-old armed with an assault weapon with white supremacy markings killed 10 people and injured three more. The teenager has since pled guilty to 10 murder charges and domestic terrorism motivated by hate.4 From a shooting at a LGBTQI+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado,5 to another at a synagogue in Pittsburgh,6 to yet another at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart frequented by Hispanic shoppers,7 firearms have become a favorite tool of hate-motivated offenders looking to harm, intimidate, and psychologically damage individuals and communities based on their identities. All told, the combination of firearms and hate has resulted in some of the deadliest mass shootings in history. The full scope of hate crimes involving firearms, however, extends far beyond high profile shootings.
The combination of firearms and hate has resulted in some of the deadliest mass shootings in history.
Weak gun laws at the federal level and in states such as Florida enable people radicalized by identity-based hate to commit deadly acts of violence against vulnerable communities. Every day, more than 28 hate crimes are committed with a gun,8 and with the number of hate crimes that law enforcement reports to the FBI at an all-time high,9 it is more urgent than ever for Congress to pass legislation that bars individuals with a history of committing hate crimes from accessing firearms.
On September 13, 2023, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) and Maxwell Frost (D-FL) reintroduced the Disarm Hate Act.10 This legislation would help prevent acts of hate-motivated gun violence by prohibiting individuals convicted of violent-misdemeanor hate crimes from purchasing or possessing firearms.
What is a hate crime?
The FBI defines a federal hate crime as a “[crime] committed on the basis of the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.”11
In understanding hate crimes, it is essential to note that the criminal legal system treats crimes motivated by bias differently from other violent crimes because of their specific yet widespread impact.12 Hate crimes are known to be particularly devastating and have been linked to a wide range of health conditions among targeted parties, including “increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use.”13
Because hate-motivated violence is intentionally directed at individuals based on their actual or perceived characteristics, these crimes are extremely personal and have deep psychological impacts on both victims and members of the communities who share victims’ characteristics.14 Hate crimes target and terrorize entire communities, sending the message that people are unsafe because of who they are. This not only creates widespread distress but also deprives communities of safe spaces. For instance, the mass shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and at Club Q in Colorado Springs made LGBTQI+ people more afraid to gather in what they previously considered safe havens.15 Such fear can be devastating for historically marginalized communities who rely on shared safe spaces for connection and community.16
Average number of hate crimes committed with a gun each day in the United States
Crimes motivated by hate also differ from other crimes in their unique tendency to continue or escalate to future physical violence. Research indicates individuals who commit hate crimes often begin with relatively minor crimes and acts of hate before moving to more serious and violent conduct. As explained by experts from Northeastern University:
Defensive hate crimes are intended to send a message—for example that Blacks are not welcome on this block or Latinos should not apply for that promotion. As such, these crimes are in their intended effect very much like acts of terrorism, meant to send a signal by means of fear and horror. If the original criminal response fails to elicit the desired retreat on the part of the victim, then the offender frequently escalates the level of property damage or violence. A Black family moving into an all-White neighborhood is first warned; if they don’t heed the warning, then their windows are broken; and if they still refuse to move out, their house may be firebombed, or worse.17
Understanding available data on hate crimes
No single resource provides reliable data on the number of hate crimes committed per year in the United States. But two federal sources collect national data on hate crimes: The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).18 The former relies on voluntary participation from local law enforcement. Consequently, its data represent only a fraction of the total number of hate crimes committed each year—yet even this fraction illustrates a growing trend in hate-motivated criminal activity.
Here is what the latest FBI hate crime data, released in March 2023, make clear:19
- Law enforcement agencies across the country reported a total of 10,840 hate crime incidents in 2021, with 12,822 victims and 12,411 related offenses. This is the highest number of hate crimes ever reported to the FBI in a single year since the data were recorded—and 1,110 more incidents than reported in 2001, the second-highest year on record.20
- From 2020 to 2021, reported hate crimes increased by an estimated 11.6 percent, marking the fourth year in a row this number has trended up. Of the incidents reported, 64.5 percent of victims were targeted because of their race, ethnicity, or ancestry; 15.9 percent were targeted because of their sexual orientation; and 14.1 percent were targeted because of their religion.21
Notably, while the number of reporting agencies decreased by 279 in 2021, the overall number of reported incidents increased by 2,577.22 This suggests that the spike in hate crime violence is likely greater than what the data show. The statistics above provide, at best, a minimum estimate of the hate-fueled violence occurring daily across the country.
The NCVS, which relies on self-reporting, provides a more accurate look at the widespread prevalence of hate crime victimization in the United States. According to this survey, there was an average of 232,586 hate crime victimizations per year from 2015 to 2019. Analysis comparing these yearly estimates to FBI UCR data shows that, on average, only 3 percent of hate crimes reported in the NCVS were eventually included in the FBI’s UCR data for each year, suggesting that, in a given year, fewer than 4 of every 100 hate crimes are actually reported to the FBI by law enforcement.23
The actual number of hate crimes committed in 2021 could be as high as 375,395, with an average of 1,027 hate crime victimizations per day.
By these figures, one can estimate that the actual number of hate crimes committed in 2021 could be as high as 375,395, with an average of 1,027 hate crime victimizations per day. This is drastically different from the daily average of 30 hate crimes reported by the FBI’s supplemental uniform homicide report in 2021.24
With the available data showing significant increases in the number of hate crime incidents across all group categories, policymakers must act now. Hate crimes committed with guns are a public safety emergency that requires immediate action.
Hate-motivated individuals’ access to firearms poses a risk to public safety
Guns are often the tools through which hate-motivated individuals carry out their violence. Because of the high-profile nature of these attacks and the sheer number of injuries and deaths that can be achieved using a firearm, armed hate is uniquely able to terrorize entire communities. In fact, estimates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that more than 10,300 hate crimes involving the use or threatened use of a firearm take place in the United States every year.25 Additionally, more than half of all hate crimes are committed by a stranger;26 in contrast, strangers make up only about a quarter of all offenders in other violent crimes.27 While many gun-related hate crimes involve deadly shootings, the majority do not involve the discharge of a weapon.28 More often, hate-motivated individuals use guns to add credibility to a threat and intimidate their victims—and in doing so, they inflict serious harm without needing to pull the trigger.
A hate-motivated individual in Oregon, for example, pepper-sprayed the door handles, as well as through the mail slot, of a local Catholic church before escalating his harassment by leaving hollow-point bullets in the church office, along with a threatening note in which he indicated he was going to attack the church with submachine guns, warning: “Eugene is going on the [expletive] map.”29 After the threat of a gun was introduced, church parishioners and staff reported for the first time that they no longer felt safe or able to freely express their faith.
How white supremacist groups use firearms
Firearms are also key tools for white supremacist groups and anti-government extremist organizations. These groups’ purpose revolves around being a warrior for one’s race and committing to use armed opposition against people or groups perceived as threatening their way of life, with guns being the primary tool through which they can assert their power.30 This puts groups that white supremacists frequently target at increased risk for hate-motivated gun violence: For instance, an analysis of federal hate crime data over a three-year period found that firearms are used in hate crimes against Black victims 20 times more often than in hate crimes against any other racial group.31
In addition to using guns to carry out violent acts of hate, white supremacists and those who carry extreme prejudice use the mere presence of guns to achieve “hierarchical compliance” from their victims.32 Capitalizing on weak open-carry laws, white supremacists and anti-government extremists frequently display firearms during protests, outside houses of worship, and in public spaces and capitol buildings to intimidate and communicate to targets that they are unwelcome, unprotected, and in immediate danger of armed violence.33 In these contexts, the presence of guns often turns deadly, increasing the likelihood of onsite violent or destructive behavior by sixfold.34 In 2017, for example, hundreds of armed white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a confederate statue. During this rally, a Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard fired his gun at peaceful counter-protestors while spewing racial epithets;35 six white supremacist attendees severely beat a counter-protester;36 and a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people.37
Notably, white supremacists and other hate-motivated “race warriors” often follow similar patterns and behaviors when using firearms to commit mass acts of hate. Because many white supremacist organizations and anti-government extremists frequent internet gun forums to spread conspiracy theories and ideologies of hate, many offenders are initially radicalized through online gun communities.38 These offenders also use internet forums to plan attacks, either researching potential places to target or improving their tactical skills. When committing acts of violence, offenders often wear military or tactical gear and pair firearms with racist imagery, such as Nazi flags, swastikas carved into weapons, or nooses, to further communicate messages of hate and fear.39
The Disarm Hate Act focuses on preventing gun violence before it happens
Under federal law, the only criminal convictions that trigger a firearm prohibition are felony-level offenses, state-level misdemeanors punishable by more than two years’ imprisonment, and certain domestic violence misdemeanors.40 This means that under the laws of at least 28 states, individuals convicted of a violent hate crime misdemeanor are still legally able to buy guns.41 This loophole has deadly consequences. Many hate crimes involve the threat, but not the discharge, of a weapon, resulting in shorter sentence lengths for offenders. Restricting firearm access on the basis of sentence length allows hate-motivated individuals with criminal histories to use firearms to threaten others and buy guns legally as long as their sentences were short enough not to trigger a federal firearm restriction. This fundamentally fails to account for the specific role that firearms play in hate crimes and the likelihood of escalation from threats to actions.
The Disarm Hate Act gives policymakers the opportunity to prevent tragedies before they occur.
In addition to being prosecuted under federal hate crime statutes, hate crimes can be prosecuted at the state level—though the definition of what constitutes a hate crime differs greatly from state to state. While all but four states have statutes that cover bias based on race, ethnicity, or religion, many do not include gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation.42 This creates gaps in protection: For instance, an estimated 17 percent of the LGBTQI+ population lives in states that do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity in their hate crime laws.43
Currently, 46 states and Washington, D.C., have state-specific hate crime laws.44 These laws, however, are usually applied after a violent crime has been committed, with prosecutors and courts using sentence enhancements to increase penalties.45 While such application is important for ensuring that individuals face additional consequences when their crimes are found to be motivated by hate, it fails to proactively prevent violence against historically marginalized communities. A more effective solution would be to restrict access to firearms for those with known histories of hate-motivated violence, thereby preventing hate-motivated harm from guns from happening in the first place.
The Disarm Hate Act would address this shortcoming by prohibiting individuals convicted of a violent-misdemeanor-level hate crime from purchasing or possessing firearms. The proposed legislation would also bar individuals from purchasing or possessing firearms if they received an enhanced sentence for a misdemeanor-level offense once a court found the offense was motivated by bias. The Disarm Hate Act would prevent individuals with a history of hate-motivated crime from legally accessing firearms and using those firearms to harm, terrorize, or intimidate others based on bias, helping address the ongoing public safety crisis that armed hate poses. Importantly, the law would address gun violence at a critical point before hate-fueled violence escalates.
The Disarm Hate Act would prevent individuals with a history of hate-motivated crime from legally accessing firearms and using those firearms to harm, terrorize, or intimidate others based on bias.
There is legal precedent for restricting access to firearms when an individual has an elevated propensity for violence. For example, certain domestic violence misdemeanors automatically trigger a firearm prohibitor, as allowing abusive partners access to guns is a known risk factor for intimate partner homicide.46 To improve the safety of marginalized communities, then, access to firearms should be restricted for those at the highest risk of committing violent hate crimes.
Policymakers must do more to stop guns from being used against groups and individuals on the basis of hate; and laws that prevent individuals with demonstrated histories of violence from possessing guns are proven to work.47 The Disarm Hate Act gives policymakers the opportunity to prevent tragedies before they occur.
Examples of the deadly intersection of hate and guns
The following examples illustrate the many different roles that guns play in hate-motivated violence. While the final case listed was not charged as a hate crime, all these accounts provide a horrific look at how armed individuals have consistently used guns to intimidate, terrorize, and harm historically marginalized individuals and communities:
- On August 18, 2023, an individual tore down the pride flag in a Southern California store while yelling homophobic slurs. When the store owner confronted the individual, he shot and killed her. The assailant had a history of anti-LGBTQI+ posts on social media, and the incident is now being investigated as a hate crime.48
- On March 20, 2022, a man in Basin, Montana, armed with two pistols and three rifles went on a “self-described mission to rid the town of Basin of its lesbian and gay community.” After identifying a lesbian resident of the town, the shooter walked to her home and opened fire on her property. He then walked toward the homes of other people who identified as or were locally known as gay or lesbian and fired off several more rounds.49
- On November 19, 2022, an assailant armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a ballistic vest walked into Club Q, a popular gay nightclub in Colorado Springs and opened fire on the crowd, killing five people and injuring 17 others in a hate-motivated attack against the LGBTQI+ community. Club Q was long considered a safe haven for LGBTQI+ people, making this act of violence all the more devastating for the victims and broader community.50
- On May 15, 2022, a Nevada man carried firearms into Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, shooting and killing one congregant and injuring five others with gunfire in an attempt to kill all 44 parishioners. The man allegedly targeted the church because of the congregants’ national origin and religion.51
- On May 14, 2022, an 18-year-old radicalized by white supremacist ideology online legally purchased several firearms, modified at least one into an illegal assault weapon, and drove several hours to a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. The individual entered a local grocery store and fired the weapons, killing 10 people and injuring three others. In an attempt to spread his message of hate and terrorize the entire Black community, the teen livestreamed the attack.52
- On August 4, 2019, in a self-described attempt to stop a perceived “Hispanic invasion” of Texas, an armed white supremacist drove 11 hours to a Walmart in El Paso, Texas—where 4 in 5 residents are Hispanic—and opened fire on shoppers, killing 23 people and injuring 22 more. This was one of the deadliest mass shootings ever recorded.53
- On March 24, 2019, a hate-motivated individual set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido, California. One month later, the same individual, now armed with a semi-automatic rifle, opened fire on the congregants of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, killing one person and injuring three others.54
- On October 27, 2018, an antisemitic white supremacist, armed with an AR-15 and three handguns, drove to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where members of the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light Jewish congregations had gathered to worship. Upon arriving, the gunman opened fire, critically wounding two congregants, killing 11 others, and injuring five responding police officers. The assailant detailed his antisemitic beliefs on social media: Hours before the shooting, he posted, “HIAS [a Jewish nonprofit organizing Shabbat ceremonies for refugees across the country] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”55 The assailant has since received the death penalty; his case is currently under appeal.
- On June 12, 2016, an armed assailant entered Pulse nightclub, one of Orlando’s most popular gay clubs, and opened fire on the patrons, killing 49 people and injuring another 53. This is the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history;56 and it was particularly disturbing, lasting nearly four hours, with reports that the assailant laughed and shot at bodies on the ground while clubgoers attempted to flee the scene, hide in bathroom stalls, or play dead on the dance floor.57
The United States is experiencing an enormous increase in hate motivated violence—one that shows no signs of stopping. Since 2014, the annual number of hate crimes reported to the FBI by law enforcement has risen by a staggering 94 percent,58 and by 2020, the rise in armed hate had become so significant that the FBI declared hate-fueled violence a top national security priority.59 Violent extremists and hate-motivated offenders pose serious threats to the safety of historically marginalized communities, and easy access to firearms makes it more likely that a hate crime will have a fatal outcome.60 Even when people do not use guns to kill, they may use them to threaten and intimidate individuals and communities vulnerable to hate crime victimization. Policymakers have a responsibility to prevent dangerous people from accessing firearms, and they can no longer afford to wait. The Disarm Hate Act must be passed to address this ongoing public safety crisis and protect all U.S. residents from hate-motivated gun violence.
Policymakers have a responsibility to prevent dangerous people from accessing firearms, and they can no longer afford to wait.