In the wake of the Parkland school massacre, several states are scrambling to find ways to address the problem of senseless mass shootings. Among them, Vermont has taken the most far-reaching and unusual approach: Moving to legally define such shootings (or attempted shootings) as domestic terrorism — regardless of whether they are ideologically motivated.
Vermont’s domestic terrorism bill came after the arrest of Jack Sawyer, an 18-year-old who kept a journal detailing his plans to shoot up his old high school. Sawyer’s actions were not enough to meet Vermont’s unusually high bar for proving attempt, and prosecutors were forced to drop the most serious charges against him (Sawyer pleaded not guilty to the rest.)
The prospect of Sawyer’s release terrified administrators at Fair Haven Union High School, who installed more than $100,000 in new security measures. And it spurred State Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat, to introduce the bill defining all mass violence — or attempted mass violence — as terrorism.
“When students tell me that they feel like they’re sitting ducks in their classroom, that’s a form of terror,” Sears told VICE News. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of some political bent.”
But there are experts in counterterrorism and civil liberties who believe such an approach will create more problems than it solves. Sears’s bill isn’t limited to school shootings — it applies to anyone who targets multiple people with violence.
That gives law enforcement huge discretion to decide who they use the law against, warned Michael German, a research fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a former FBI agent who focused on domestic terrorism, particularly neo-Nazi and other armed far-right groups.
German warned that giving the authorities such broad power to call people terrorists — and to prosecute them as such — opens the door for them to use the statute excessively against people they’re already predisposed to suspect, beginning with Muslim Americans and other minorities.
“The last thing you would want to do is take one horrible case and pass a broad law that creates more horrible problems in the future,” German said.
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