The link between domestic terror attacks and easy access to powerful guns is “beyond dispute,” according to a top U.S. Justice Department official.
“We have to be clear about this as a nation,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told an audience in Washington on Wednesday, the same day the department made the suspect in a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, eligible for the death penalty.
“The ability of violent extremists to acquire military-grade weapons in this country contributes significantly to their ability to kill and inflict harm on a massive scale,” said Olsen, a former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center who now heads the Justice Department’s national security division.
“It is, I think, inarguable that the access to powerful weapons in this country gives domestic violence extremists the ability to carry out attacks on a scale that they couldn’t otherwise carry out and that we don’t see in other countries.”
Also Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers filed federal hate crimes charges against 18-year-old Payton Gendron, accused of gunning down 10 Black people during an attack at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket on May 14.
According to prosecutors and law enforcement officials, Gendron’s gun, a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle had racial slurs written on it as well as the phrase, “The Great Replacement,” referencing a theory espoused by many violent white supremacists.
Gendron also wrote a self-described manifesto detailing his plan to kill Black people, saying his goal was to “kill as many blacks as possible.”
“Hate-fueled acts of violence terrorize not only the individuals who are all attacked but entire communities,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday after meeting with survivors and families of the victims.
“No one in this country should have to live in fear that they will go to work or shop at the grocery store, and they will be attacked by someone who hates them because of the color of their skin. Someone who commits that act because he subscribes to the vile theory that only people like him belong in this country,” he added.
Gendron previously pleaded not guilty to charges of domestic terrorism, including hate-motivated domestic terrorism and murder.
The recent spate of gun violence has prompted U.S. lawmakers to reexamine the country’s gun laws, long a hot-button political issue. Top Democrats and Republicans expressed optimism a compromise involving several modest measures could be reached by the end of this week.
U.S. officials have repeatedly been warning of a dynamic and heightened threat environment and the possibility of domestic terror attacks, recently extending a threat advisory for another six months.
Earlier this year, U.S. officials warned the number of domestic terrorism cases opened by the FBI had more than doubled since March 2020, prompting the Justice Department to create a domestic terrorism unit to specifically handle the resulting prosecutions.
In January, FBI Executive Assistant Director Jill Sanborn told lawmakers that domestic extremists, including racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, “will continue to pose the most serious threats.”
On Wednesday, the Justice Department’s Olsen warned that the threat from domestic violent extremists and domestic terrorism “has increased in an alarming way.”
Olsen also expressed concern about the known links between white supremacist groups in the U.S. and those abroad.
Earlier Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two supporters of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which was designated by the State Department as a global terror organization in 2020.
One of the individuals, Stanislav Shevchuk, a Europe-based RIM representative, traveled to the US in 2017 “with the objective of establishing connections,” according to a Treasury Department statement.