On Sunday night, a gunman from Mesquite, Nev., opened fire at a crowd of more than 20,000 country music fans in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 and leaving more than 500 with injuries.
When asked if authorities believed the massacre to be an act of terrorism, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said, “No, not at this point. We believe it was a local individual. He resides here locally. We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”
Chatter, from political pundits and social media opiners, has begun about whether the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history should be labeled a terrorist attack. While many are inclined to call the mass murder a terrorist attack, the law is not that clear on the matter.
The Nevada state law on terrorism:
Nevada’s statute refers to an act of terrorism as “any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.”
And a separate state law describes a terrorist as “a person who intentionally commits, causes, aids, furthers or conceals an act of terrorism or attempts to commit, cause, aid, further or conceal an act of terrorism.”
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman never mentioned the “t” word when discussing the tragedy Monday. Instead, Goodman described the shooter as “a crazed lunatic, full of hate.”
But under U.S. law, the mass shooting does not fit the “terrorism” description.
Under federal law, a terrorist is someone with ties to a foreign entity, such as the Islamic State and other known terror groups, who uses tactics of intimidation or violence for political motives and intends to affect not just the immediate victims, but a larger group.
The label does not legally apply to homegrown extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis, even if they perform more heinous acts of violence than mass shooters from other countries.
“Although acts of war, acts of crime and acts of terror can look very much alike on the surface, they have very different motives, very different reasons for being, and I think that’s why people are confused,” Robin Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR in 2015. “They look alike on the surface; they’re different underneath.”
President Donald Trump on Monday condemned shooting as an “act of pure evil,” forgoing the words “terror,” “terrorist” or “terrorism.”
Are charges different for domestic terrorists under non-terrorism charges compared to international terrorists?
According to FBI Director Chris Wray, even if a domestic terrorist is convicted under non-terrorism charges, he or she can face the same punishment as those convicted under international terrorism statutes.
“There may be reasons why it’s simpler, easier, quicker, less resource-intensive and you can still get a long sentence with some of the other offenses,” Wray said while testifying before Congress last week. “And so, even though you may not see them, from your end, as a domestic terrorism charge, they are very much domestic terrorism cases that are just being brought under other criminal offenses.”
News organizations tend to report on official statements from authorities. In those reports, you’ll likely see “mass shooting” or “mass murderer” and rarely “domestic terrorism,” “terrorist” or “terror attack.”
Randall Law, author of “Terrorism: A History,” said he believes there is a racial component to the government’s reluctance to write domestic terror laws.
He’s certainly not alone.
Many Americans, Law said, think only “people with foreign names … and people with dark skin funding foreign ideologies” would commit such heinous acts.
International terrorists like ISIS and al-Qaeda do pose a threat to the U.S. Before Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened in June 2016 when a man inspired by ISIS killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub, in Orlando, Fla.
However, between 2001 and 2015, more Americans, nearly twice as many, were killed by homegrown non-Muslim extremists than Islamist terrorists, according to a 2015 New York Times report.
What about new domestic terrorism laws?
In the U.S., there’s still a great deal of reluctance to create a criminal charge of domestic terrorism.
“It’s an incredibly broad label,” Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR in August following the white nationalist rally car attack in Charlottesville, Va.
“There’s a real danger of the government criminalizing ideology, theology and beliefs rather than focusing on specific criminal acts,” she said.
According to Shamsi, the ACLU opposes any such law, because it believes it infringes on free speech and religion and could be politicized and used against groups like anti-war groups or environmental activists.