The FBI Agents Association released a statement Tuesday calling on Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime in the wake of two mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas.
The statement came with the FBI facing renewed criticism that it's inadequately combating domestic terrorism and failing to address it as vigorously as it does international terrorism.
But civil-rights activists have expressed concerns that broadening the government's powers to address domestic terrorism could test the limits of free speech.
It could also test whether Americans approve of aggressive oversight when the targets are white and not Muslim.
The FBI Agents Association is calling on Congress to classify domestic terrorism a federal crime.
"Domestic terrorism is a threat to the American people and our democracy," the association said in a statement released Tuesday. "Acts of violence intended to intimidate civilian populations or to influence or affect government policy should be prosecuted as domestic terrorism regardless of the ideology behind them."
It continued: "FBIAA continues to urge Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime. This would ensure that FBI Agents and prosecutors have the best tools to fight domestic terrorism."
The group's statement comes after two mass shootings over the weekend — there have been 255 in the US this year by one definition — in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. The Dayton shooting killed at least nine people, and the El Paso shooting killed at least 22 people.
The 21-year-old white, male suspect in the El Paso shooting may face hate-crime charges, officials said, after authorities discovered an online post they've attributed to the El Paso gunman that railed against Hispanics and immigrants and accused them of taking away jobs in the US.
The motive behind the Dayton shooting is not yet clear, authorities said. But former friends and an ex-girlfriend told NBC News that the 24-year-old gunman, who was killed by the police, had hit lists, often talked about mass murders, and was fixated on people from his past.
The two mass shootings shifted the national spotlight back to the rising threat posed by white supremacist violence in the US.
The FBI has 850 open domestic terrorism investigations. Of that number, 40% involve racially motivated violent extremism, and a majority of those cases involve white nationalists, the bureau said. FBI Director Christopher Wray also told Congress last month that the agency counted 100 domestic terrorism arrests in the past nine months.
The bureau is facing renewed criticism that it's inadequately combating domestic terrorism and failing to address it as vigorously as it does international terrorism. Current and former officials say the disparity can be explained in part by the fact that there's no federal penalty for domestic terrorism, with US law-enforcement agencies having far more power to investigate foreign terrorism than they do homegrown extremism.
After the Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist riots in 2017, Thomas O'Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, wrote in an op-ed article for The Hill that US law had resulted in "uncertainty for law enforcement officials and the public, as it makes federal officials depend on city codes to prosecute domestic terrorists."
He suggested that Congress pass legislation making it a crime for a person to "commit, attempt, or conspire to commit an act of violence intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence government policy or conduct."
Mary McCord, a former national security prosecutor, echoed that view, writing in Lawfare last year that such a law would provide for better record-keeping and analysis. She added that it would also push back on the widely held view that the federal government didn't care as much about domestic terrorism and white nationalism as it did foreign terrorism, particularly of the kind influenced by radical Islam.
That said, there are significant concerns among civil-rights activists that broadening the federal government's powers could test the limits of free speech.
Martin Stolar, a New York civil-rights lawyer, told The New York Times that a sharpened focus on white supremacist violence would also test whether Americans approved of aggressive oversight when the targets were white and not Muslim.
"If they did the same thing that they did with the Muslims, they'd say every white guy is a potential terrorist," Stolar told The Times. "You can't do that with white people. The blowback would be outrageous."