In the wake of this past weekend's massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) announced in a press release today that he intends to introduce new legislation which "would prohibit the purchase, possession or shipment of a firearm by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime or who received a hate crime sentence enhancement."
What makes Casey's "Hate Crimes Prevention Act" especially noteworthy is that a conviction would no longer be necessary to deprive someone of their Second Amendment rights. Merely being "reasonably suspected to be guilty of a misdemeanor hate crime" would be enough. It is not clear who the senator would authorize to determine whether a person is reasonably or unreasonably suspected to be guilty of any particular crime, much less one that tries to get inside the head of a suspected criminal and police their thoughts.
Per Casey's press release:
"If you have proven you will commit criminal acts based on hate, you absolutely should not have access to a gun. It's common sense," Senator Casey said. "It is time we as members of Congress do something. If you are a member of Congress and you say you care about security then you have to take steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands and ensure our law enforcement has the resources needed to keep communities safe.
Casey's press release also states that "known hate groups are growing in the United States" and cites the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)'s statistic that "892 hate groups are currently operating in the United States, up 14 percent since 2014 and almost 33 percent since 2000." Earlier this year, Reason's Jesse Walker examined the SPLC's often very-fuzzy math and its frequent tendendency to define "gang slayings, domestic violence, and other apolitical or ambiguous assaults in which the killer also happens to subscribe to an 'extremist' worldview" to fulfill their pre-determined theory that hate crimes and hate groups are almost always on the rise in the U.S.
Casey has long been a proponent of hate crime laws, which enhance the penalties of criminal behavior based on the identity of the victim and if the motive of the perpetrator was based on hate (rather than envy, rage, greed, etc.) However, there is no evidence that such laws effectively provide enhanced protection against groups who traditionally face discrimination, such as LGBTQ people. But tragedies such as the sickening mass murder in Orlando are opportunities for politicians to "do something," even if all they're doing is creating what Harvard professor Michael Bronski calls "feel-good laws." Bronski told NPR last year:
I think part of what they do is that they actually misdirect us from looking at much deeper issues," he said. "Racism is a problem, homophobia is a problem, violence against immigrants is a problem … so we end up passing these laws and saying 'look at this, we're actually doing something.
Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico also wrote this in The Nation in 2013:
People who commit crimes and are caught usually get punished. Getting rid of hate crime laws would not let convicted criminals go free. The person who commits a second-degree felony in New York State can already go to prison for seven years. Is doubling—or, as the law euphemistically states it, "enhancing"—that prison sentence from seven to fifteen years going to make it more of a deterrent? Most people and groups, although not all, who oppose hate crime legislation do so because of the enhanced penalty provisions; they see no problem with recording crime statistics in a way that gives a snapshot of social attitudes about LGBT people. But the place to change social attitudes, hearts, and minds is not in prisons. It is in schools, in activist organizations, around the dinner table, at houses of worship and other places where people can talk, disagree and learn that disagreement may be a useful and even productive means of growth.
This is correct. And now that police officers — a group who already enjoy the protections of innumerable laws for violence directed at them — are being classified in some states as a protected group under hate crime laws, even some proponents of hate crime laws are starting to see how "hate" as a motivating factor in violent crime is completely in the eye of the beholder. Kate Wheeling wrote in Pacific Standard last month:
Therein lies the trouble with hate-crime laws, argues James Jacobs, director of New York University's Center for Research in Crime and Justice and author of Hate Crime: Criminal Law and Identity Politics. "It's politically very difficult to oppose any group's effort to be covered," Jacobs says. "So we'll have a fight among potential crime victims about whose victimization is worse." The existence of hate-crime laws, according to Jacobs, forces legislatures to decide which prejudices are more deserving of harsher punishments than others?—?an inherently prejudiced exercise.
Yesterday, Vox shame-published the names of Congresspeople "who voted against protecting gay people from hate crimes." But this phrasing only feeds into the misguided narrative that politicians who "do something" are the righteous guardians of our safety and dissenters are cold-hearted bigots. The reality is conferring special status on certain victims over others — by merely enhancing the penalties of violent crimes — does not make marginalized groups safer, and depriving people of their rights based on "suspicion" is not "common sense."