In the last three weeks US authorities have arrested at least 28 people accused of threatening acts of mass violence. What’s behind this surge and could they all be convicted?
The threats ranged from posts on social media and video gaming sites to verbal comments to colleagues and friends. In at least two cases, suspects sent text messages to ex-partners. Hoards of weapons were also found in some cases.
The FBI won’t say what is behind the steep bump in apprehensions, some carried out by that agency, others by local police. It’s not clear if it marks a growth in threats or simply a rise in awareness and tip-offs.
But former FBI boss Andrew McCabe said on Friday there was undoubtedly a “renewed awareness” focused on the sort of threats that a few months ago might have been ignored by investigators mindful of the right to free speech as enshrined in the US Constitution.
The first amendment offers broad protection of free speech, even if that speech is racist or of a violent nature. Prosecutions in the US are further complicated by the second amendment which safeguards the right to bear arms.
So what can be done to stop a shooter before they strike?
When a threat becomes a crime
More than two dozen people are reported to have been arrested for making threats to carry out mass violence since the 3 August shooting in El Paso.
Many of the alleged plots foiled by US law enforcement included plans to target specific minority groups. But without any federal penalties in place for acts of domestic terrorism – like those that exist for international terrorism – the charges varied – false threats, terrorist threats, illegal possession of weapons and disorderly conduct.
It’s unclear how these various cases will fare at trial. For charges asserting threats of violence, the threats must be highly specific, accompanied by evidence of imminent danger.
“The whole test is whether something is a clear or present danger,” says Martin Stolar, a civil rights lawyer based in New York. You must be expressing a clear intention to commit a crime, he continued, and close to committing it.
A case in Vermont shows how tricky it can be to prosecute. Jack Sawyer, 18, was arrested in 2018 after he threatened to cause mass casualties at his former high school. A friend had informed police, who searched his car and found a 31-page diary entitled Journal of an Active Shooter.
The state’s attorney charged Mr Sawyer with four felonies – two counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among the most serious charges in Vermont.
But within months, all four felony charges were dropped. Mr Sawyer walked free in April 2018 and has now been adjudicated as a youthful offender for carrying a dangerous weapon. He will remain under state supervision until he turns 22.
The court found that he had stated his intentions to commit harm but no action followed, says Vermont-based lawyer David Sleigh. “Simply contemplating a crime is not a crime in Vermont.”
All states have laws that bar violent threats. Threats made by US mail or interstate commerce, for example, are considered criminal. But those threats generally must include the incitement or solicitation of specific violent acts to be considered criminal.
“You don’t criticise someone for speaking, you criticise people for picking up a gun,” says Mr Stolar. “When speech crosses the line.”
Without a designated target, an immediate timeline, or clear preparations to commit assault, violent words may be protected speech.
There must be “action and imminent danger,” Mr Sleigh says. “As opposed to trying to criminalise evil or unpalatable thinking.”
What happens in other countries?
In terms of free speech protections, the US is singular.
“In some countries, they’ve criminalised certain types of hate speech that are protected here,” says Mary McCord, a former senior national security prosecutor, now legal director at Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
“They have a tool available in those countries to prevent some of the type of speech that can be used to recruit new adherents to an ideology.”
What about other countries?
In the UK, for example, an expression of hatred related to a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.
In Canada, too, there are more restrictions on free speech than in the US. The federal criminal code includes multiple provisions barring hate speech, including those that impose criminal sanctions against anyone who willfully incites hatred in public against an identifiable group, including those distinguished by race, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.
Such sensitivities “present barriers,” Ms McCord says, “to effectively combat the spread of violent ideologies.”
But in the US, she continues, “we respect the first amendment.”
Is an arsenal legal?
The implications of the first amendment are complicated by the second, which enshrines the right to gun ownership.
In many of the recent arrests, suspects were found in possession of firearms and other weapons. But even where suspects were found with a hoard of firearms – like 18-year-old Justin Olsen, who was found with more than a dozen rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition – the cache of weapons uncovered were legally acquired, and do not provide grounds to prosecute.
“If a person’s not prohibited for having a weapon, he could have a bunch of weapons, he could not be breaking any laws at all,” says Ms McCord.
She has drafted a proposal to criminalise the stockpiling of weapons for use in a domestic attack.
“That would enable the government to prove his intent,” says Ms McCord, giving law enforcement an additional tool to thwart potential offenders before they act. Without standing law specifically addressing domestic terrorism, “law enforcement has to find something to charge [suspects] with because there’s nothing that directly applies. They’re cobbling things together to charge.”
Ms McCord is among a growing number of those within the intelligence community calling for domestic terrorism to be classified as a federal crime, giving law enforcement expanded preventative powers – similar to those that apply to international terrorist groups.
But some civil rights advocates and attorneys balk at giving the US government any more power. They argue that existing laws, when enforced, are sufficient.
“I think the rush to try to expand police authority into regulating rights of free speech or rights to gun ownership should be taken very, very carefully,” Mr Sleigh says.
Does the combination of the first and second amendment create a volatility that does not exist elsewhere, he asks.
“I suspect it does. But it’s been part of our national project to embrace that liberty and freedom, knowing that it comes with risk.”
Two mass shootings within 24 hours, leaving 31 people dead, has once again brought the spotlight on gun ownership in the United States.
An attack on a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas on Saturday left 20 dead, while nine died in a shooting in Dayton, Ohio on Sunday.
But where does America stand on the right to bear arms and gun control?
What do young people think about gun control?
When looking at the period before the Parkland school shooting in 2018, it is interesting to track how young people have felt about gun control.
Support for gun control over the protection of gun rights in America is highest among 18 to 29-year-olds, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre, with a spike after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. The overall trend though suggests a slight decrease in support for gun control over gun rights since 2000.
Pew found that one third of over-50s said they owned a gun. The rate of gun ownership was lower for younger adults – about 28%. White men are especially likely to own a gun.
How does the US compare with other countries?
About 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one, according to a 2017 survey, and the rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm is the highest in the developed world. There were almost 11,000 deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter involving a firearm in 2017.
Homicides are taken here to include murder and manslaughter. The FBI separates statistics for what it calls justifiable homicide, which includes the killing of a criminal by a police officer or private citizen in certain circumstances, which are not included.
In about 13% of cases, the FBI does not have data on the weapon used. By removing these cases from the overall total of gun deaths in the US, the proportion of gun-related killings rises to 73% of homicides.
Who owns the world’s guns?
While it is difficult to know exactly how many guns civilians own around the world, by every estimate the US with more than 390 million is far out in front.
Switzerland and Finland are two of the European countries with the most guns per person – they both have compulsory military service for all men over the age of 18. The Finnish interior ministry says about 60% of gun permits are granted for hunting – a popular pastime in Finland. Cyprus and Yemen also have military service.
How do US gun deaths break down?
There have been more than 110 mass shootings in the US since 1982, according to investigative magazine Mother Jones.
Up until 2012, a mass shooting was defined as when an attacker had killed four or more victims in an indiscriminate rampage – and since 2013 the figures include attacks with three or more victims. The shootings do not include killings related to other crimes such as armed robbery or gang violence.
The overall number of people killed in mass shootings each year represents only a tiny percentage of the total number.
Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there were a total of more than 38,600 deaths from guns in 2016 – of which more than 22,900 were suicides. Suicide by firearm accounts for almost half of all suicides in the US, according to the CDC.
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found there was a strong relationship between higher levels of gun ownership in a state and higher firearm suicide rates for both men and women.
Attacks in US become deadlier
The Las Vegas attack in 2017 was the worst in recent US history – and eight of the shootings with the highest number of casualties happened within the past 10 years.
What types of guns kill Americans?
Military-style assault-style weapons have been blamed for some of the major mass shootings such as the attack in an Orlando nightclub and at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut.
Dozens of rifles were recovered from the scene of the Las Vegas shooting, police reported.
A few US states have banned assault-style weapons, which were totally restricted for a decade until 2004.
However most murders caused by guns involve handguns, according to FBI data.
How much do guns cost to buy?
For those from countries where guns are not widely owned, it can be a surprise to discover that they are relatively cheap to purchase in the US.
Among the arsenal of weapons recovered from the hotel room of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock were handguns, which can cost from as little $200 (£151) – comparable to a Chromebook laptop.
Assault-style rifles, also recovered from Paddock’s room, can cost from around $1,500 (£1,132).
In addition to the 23 weapons at the hotel, a further 19 were recovered from Paddock’s home. It is estimated that he may have spent more than $70,000 (£52,800) on firearms and accessories such as tripods, scopes, ammunition and cartridges.
Who supports gun control?
US public opinion on the banning of handguns has changed dramatically over the last 60 years. Support has shifted over time and now a significant majority opposes a ban on handguns, according to polling by Gallup.
But a majority of Americans say they are dissatisfied with US gun laws and policies, and most of those who are unhappy want stricter legislation.
Some states have taken steps to ban or strictly regulate ownership of assault weapons. Laws vary by state but California, for example, has banned around 75 types and models of assault weapon.
Some controls are widely supported by people across the political divide – such as restricting the sale of guns to people who are mentally ill, or on “watch” lists.
But Republicans and Democrats are much more divided over other policy proposals, such as whether to allow ordinary citizens increased rights to carry concealed weapons – according to a survey from Pew Research Center.
The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday dealt a blow to the firearms industry, rejecting Remington Arms Co’s bid to escape a lawsuit by families of victims aiming to hold the gun maker liable for its marketing of the assault-style rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre that killed 20 children and six adults.
The justices turned away Remington’s appeal of a ruling by Connecticut’s top court to let the lawsuit proceed despite a federal law that broadly shields firearms manufacturers from liability when their weapons are used in crimes. The lawsuit will move forward at a time of high passions in the US over the issue of gun control.
The family members of nine people slain and one survivor of the Sandy Hook massacre filed the lawsuit in 2014. Remington was backed in the case by a number of gun rights groups and lobbying organisations including the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which is closely aligned with Republicans including President Donald Trump. The NRA called the lawsuit “company-killing”.
The December 14, 2012, rampage was carried out by a 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza, who shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and fired on the first-graders and adult staff before fatally shooting himself as police closed in.
The US has experienced a succession of mass shootings in recent decades, including several that have staggered the public such as the 2017 attack at a Las Vegas concert that killed 58 and one at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016 that killed 49. Assault-type rifles have been a recurring feature in many of the massacres.
The US Congress has not enacted new gun control laws in the wake of the mass shootings largely because of Republican opposition.
The plaintiffs have argued that Remington bears some of the blame for the Sandy Hook tragedy. They said the Bushmaster AR-15 gun that Lanza used – a semi-automatic civilian version of the US military’s M-16 – had been illegally marketed by the company to civilians as a combat weapon for waging war and killing human beings.
The plaintiffs said that Connecticut’s consumer protection law forbids advertising that promotes violent, criminal behaviour and yet even though these rifles have become the “weapon of choice for mass shooters” Remington’s ads “continued to exploit the fantasy of an all-conquering lone gunman”. One of them, they noted, stated: “Forces of opposition, bow down.”
Remington argued that it should be insulated from the lawsuit by a 2005 federal law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was aimed at blocking a wave of lawsuits damaging to the firearms industry.
The case hinges on an exception to this shield for claims in which a gun manufacturer knowingly violates the law to sell or market guns. Remington has argued that the Connecticut Supreme Court interpreted the exception too broadly when it decided to let the case go ahead.
Though the case does not directly implicate the US Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, the NRA told the justices in a filing that the lawsuit could put gun manufacturers out of business, making the right meaningless.
A state trial court initially threw out the claims but the Connecticut Supreme Court revived the lawsuit in March, prompting Remington’s appeal.
The US Supreme Court has already taken up one important gun rights case in their current term.
They are due to hear arguments on December 2 in a lawsuit by gun owners and the state’s NRA affiliate challenging New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting firearms outside the home. The city had asked the justices to cancel the arguments because its measure was recently amended, meaning there was no longer any reason to hear the dispute. But the court has decided to go ahead with the case.
Three men have been killed and four wounded in a shooting in the US state of California after a late-night fight at a bowling alley.
The Torrance Police Department said officers responded to calls of “shots fired” at the Gable House Bowl in Torrance, a town about 40km south of Los Angeles, shortly before midnight on Friday
Multiple victims were found with gunshot wounds inside the gaming venue, which offers bowling, laser tag and an arcade.
Police said three men died at the scene and four male victims were injured, two of whom were transported to a hospital for unknown injuries while the other two injured sought medical treatment on their own.
“Investigators are currently conducting a follow-up investigation, and are working to identify the suspect(s) involved,” the department said in a statement.
Authorities have not released details about what led to the shooting, but witnesses said it stemmed from a fight between two large groups of people at the bowling alley.
Wes Hamad, a 29-year-old Torrance resident, was at the bowling alley with his 13-year-old niece and cousin when he saw a “huge fight” break out.
Hamad told the Associated Press news agency that the brawl, which lasted about five minutes, blocked the entrance of Gable House Bowl and devolved into “complete chaos”.
“I grabbed my niece and started running toward the far end of the bowling alley,” Hamad said. “As we were running, we heard 15 shots.”
As he was leaving, Hamad said he saw a woman weeping over a man who had multiple gunshot wounds to his head and neck.
Damone Thomas was in the karaoke section of the venue, a regular stop for him and his friends after work on Fridays, when people ran in saying there was a shooting.
The 30-year-old Los Angeles resident said his friend flipped over one of the tables to shield them as they heard gunshots.
Thomas told the AP he didn’t feel scared because he was “just trying to survive”. But when he was driving back home, he said he realised how traumatic the situation had been and he hasn’t been able to fall asleep.
“Closing my eyes, all I can see is the women against the wall crying, not knowing what to do,” he said.
The US has long dealt with the issue of mass shootings. In the first four days of 2019, there have been five mass shootings that resulted in five deaths, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a group that tracks such incidents.
Both Thomas and Hamad said they had never witnessed any violence at Gable House Bowl in the past, but Hamad said he had stopped going for a while because he heard someone with a gun was recently seen there.
“I definitely won’t be going back any more,” he added.
According to health authorities, nearly 40,000 people died in the US as a result of firearms in 2017 – a figure that includes suicides.
California is going to ban anyone under 21 from buying rifles, shotguns and semiautomatic weapons.
California, which is believed to have one of the toughest gun laws in the United States, is going to make it stricter in 2019.
The state is going to ban anyone under the age of 21 from buying rifles, shotguns and semiautomatic weapons. It is also contemplating a lifetime ban on gun ownership for California residents convicted of serious acts of domestic violence.