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Recent Mass Shootings Raise Questions About Law Enforcement's Ability To Prevent Them


The recent mass shootings have raised questions about whether law enforcement could have prevented these attacks. The FBI has dedicated a lot of resources into stopping attacks by international terrorists; the threat of domestic terrorism presents its own challenges for the bureau. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here in the studio to explain.

Hey, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: Is it harder for the FBI to investigate domestic terrorism than international terrorism?

LUCAS: In some ways it is, yes, and that's because there are different laws and different tools that the FBI can use in investigating suspected international terrorism that it can't in a case of domestic terrorism. One prime example of that is something called the material support statute. You'll hear that come up a lot in prosecutions of Islamic State cases, al-Qaida cases. What that does is make it illegal to provide material support - and that could mean weapons, money, even oneself - to a group that the U.S. government has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

That allows the FBI to investigate people overseas, but also here in the U.S., if there's reason to believe that they are providing this sort of support to a foreign terrorist group. It also allows the FBI to use certain surveillance authorities to monitor these individuals' communications.

SHAPIRO: And how does that compare to domestic terrorism?

LUCAS: Well, for one thing, there's no analogous material support statute for domestic terrorism. There's no list of designated domestic terrorist organizations. A list like that would run into a lot of Constitutional issues, First Amendment issues. It's not a crime to belong to or support a white nationalist or white supremacist group. Political beliefs and speech like that are protected. FBI officials say that they are very conscious of those boundaries.

In practice, law enforcement folks say that that means that the FBI can't open an investigation of an American based solely - very important word there - solely on something a person says, even if they are threatening violence.

SHAPIRO: The FBI has successfully investigated and prosecuted white nationalists in the past. So what's different today?

LUCAS: The landscape has changed. Back in the 1970s, '80s, '90s, these were formal investigations with a hierarchy, a leadership. Investigators could use informants, could use surveillance to target their groups and their leaders. That's not what the scene looks like today. Experts say that formal groups don't really matter as much now; the Internet has changed that. Here's how FBI assistant director Michael McGarrity recently explained what the landscape looks like now to lawmakers.


MICHAEL MCGARRITY: I've seen an evolving threat with more self - insular actors, lone actors - seeing them mobilize by themselves on the Internet and radicalize by themselves on the Internet and mobilize to violence in shorter periods of time than we've seen in the past.

LUCAS: And that sort of independent actor, someone who has no allegiance to a particular movement, to a broader group, can be much harder to find before they strike and to stop. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said in Congress that the FBI made about 100 domestic terrorism arrests between October and June. So this is on the radar, but, of course, there is still a lot of pressure to do more.

SHAPIRO: So what could law enforcement do to prevent these kinds of attacks?

LUCAS: One thing that I've heard from former officials again and again is the importance of making combating domestic terror a priority for the FBI and also, importantly, more broadly, for the U.S. government. That will help focus resources. It will help raise public awareness about domestic violent extremism and white nationalism. For its part, as I said, the FBI says that it's taking this domestic terror threat seriously, but, again, this isn't just about the FBI.

The Trump administration cut funding for a Department of Homeland Security program that was aimed at countering violent extremism through community outreach. That program came under a lot of criticism for various reasons. One was it was overwhelmingly focused on Islamist extremism. But some experts say that a program like that could have a role to play in tackling the problem of white nationalism.

SHAPIRO: That's Ryan Lucas.

Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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