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Days after Buffalo mass shooting, the House approves a bill to fight domestic terror

As police and FBI agents continue their investigation into the shooting at Tops Market in Buffalo, N.Y., last weekend, Congress is considering legislation to address domestic terrorism. Authorities say the attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred.
Scott Olson
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As police and FBI agents continue their investigation into the shooting at Tops Market in Buffalo, N.Y., last weekend, Congress is considering legislation to address domestic terrorism. Authorities say the attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred.

The House of Representatives narrowly approved legislation on Wednesday to elevate the federal government's efforts to combat the threat of domestic terrorism.

The vote was 222-203.

The action came days after a gunman wearing body armor killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. He was arrested and law enforcement quickly said it was a racially motivated hate crime.

The bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022, creates offices at the departments of Homeland Security and Justice and the FBI specifically focused on investigating and tracking domestic terror threats. It also directs these offices to share potential risks and take steps to prevent future attacks.

The legislation had bipartisan support when it was introduced earlier this year. A similar measure was approved by voice vote by the House in September of 2020, just months before the Jan. 6 insurrection. But only one Republican — Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger -- joined all House Democrats to approve the bill late Wednesday evening.

Without votes for gun bill, Democrats target domestic terror

Without the votes to pass any new gun control measures in a narrowly divided Congress, House Democrats said it was worth focusing on something that shouldn't be a partisan issue.

Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., the sponsor of the bill, told NPR he pushed for a vote on the bill since it was something that garnered support from both parties in the last Congress.

"This past weekend, we had the shooting in Buffalo. We had a shooting in California. We had a shooting in my district, a gang shooting where a 14 year old boy was killed," he said. "We need to address what is an epidemic of gun violence in the country. We need to tackle the challenge of domestic extremism. And the only way we do that is finding a bipartisan way to to push the ball forward together."

The Illinois Democrat said the threats are going up and there's a need to elevate efforts to find ways to prevent future incidents.

"I can't say this law would have stopped what happened in Buffalo," Schneider said. "What I can say is that if we give the abilities of the FBI, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security to try to intercept these threats before they become a reality, maybe we stop the next Buffalo or the next El Paso, the next Pittsburgh attack."

Republicans argue federal effort could target parents

GOP lawmakers who voted for the 2020 bill now argue the Biden administration would overreach if the bill is put into place. Many maintain it would allow the Justice Department to label parents criticizing their school boards as domestic terrorists.

"The difference from two years ago and now is that the DOJ has started going after concerned parents showing up at school board meetings, labeling them domestic terrorists, " Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Guy Reschenthaler said on the House floor in response to Democrats' pointing out earlier support for the measure.

The controversy stems from a memoissued by the Justice Department in October 2021 that directs federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the uptick in threats to school boards following intense debates in communities about vaccine and mask mandates.

Attorney General Merrick Garland last fall knocked down allegations there was a concerted effort to target parents. In a hearing he told a House panel "The Justice Department supports the First Amendment rights of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish," and added, "That's not what this memo is about."

Nebraska Republican Don Bacon, one of GOP sponsors of the current bill says conservative media attacking the bill has made voters in his district worried.

"They feel like it's been politicized, these investigations. So actually I hear from folks, are they going investigate me because I'm pro-life? And I'm not saying just one or two. I heard it from dozens of constituents — 'How could you be on this bill?'"

Even hours before the vote, Bacon was torn, telling NPR "I like Brad Schneider. Brad and I work well together on this stuff and and I think there's a case to be made to vote for it, too. So I'm giving you the other side — the pushback I'm getting. But I got out of the bill for a reason and I thought there was some goodness to it as well."

The debate on the House floor grew tense at times. Bacon said he didn't like the tone and said he thought some Democrats were suggesting some members in his party were racist.

Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents the El Paso district where a gunman in 2019 targeted Hispanic shoppers at a Walmart, leaving 22 people dead and 26 injured, urged passage of a bill to address what she said was a rising problem.

"America has a racism problem. America has a hate problem, and America has a domestic terrorism problem," she said.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Garland last week saying he heard from some parents who say they were being investigated to actions related to their protests of school officials.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment on GOP lawmakers claims about the House legislation.

Schneider pushed back at the claims about federal overreach, saying, "It's not a new statute, doesn't create any new statutes or penalties. It gives our federal law enforcement resources to identify the growing threats of domestic terrorism like what we saw in Buffalo and hopefully prevent these types of events in the future."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told NPR on Tuesday that a partisan vote on the issue would "say that the Republican Party is not as focused as domestic terrorism as they need to be because they think a lot of their 'stand back and stand by guys' may be implicated."

The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said he planned to introduce a bill matching the House bill and said both parties on Capitol Hill should agree it's time to focus on the issue before it gets even worse.

"As we took 9/11 seriously, we need to take this seriously, he said."

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the Senate would take a procedural vote to advance the bill next week, but it's unclear the measure has the 60 votes needed.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.