Fifty people were killed yesterday during a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. When is a mass shooting or killings considered domestic terrorism by the U.S. federal government?
There is no single official U.S. definition of terrorism. Rather, each agency or law has its own definition which may conflict with other definitions.
Below are a few examples.
Dept. of Justice
According to the FBI website:
There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
The Code of Federal Regulations codifies federal regulations. It is law, but not in quite the same way as statutes are. The regulation mentioned above is specific to the Department of Justice. 28 CFR Sec. 0.85 mirrors this language, saying terrorism "includes":
the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives
Therefore, for the Department of Justice, a mass shooting is not terrorism unless it promotes some political or social goal.
Department of State
However, federal law is inconsistent. For example, when describing the annual reporting requirements of the Department of State the law uses this definition of terrorism:
the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;
This is entirely different from the definition in the CFR. For example, any attack on military targets is never terrorism, and only subnational or clandestine groups can be terrorists.
Each state may also have their own definition. For example, the state of Kansas has this definition in law (formatting slightly altered from original):
Terrorism is the commission of, the attempt to commit, the conspiracy to commit, or the criminal solicitation to commit any felony with the intent to:
- Intimidate or coerce the civilian population;
- influence government policy by intimidation or coercion;
- or affect the operation of any unit of government
In Kansas, any felony can be considered terrorism under the right circumstances, not just violent ones! Unlike the federal definitions, it does not include the objective furthering a social cause, which is another significant difference.
There is not any singular definition of terrorism in the United States. Different agencies and different laws will have entirely different and contradictory definitions.
There is one single Federal Definition of Domestic Terrorism, provided in Title 18, section 2331:
(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
This was amended by the USA PATRIOT Act, of OCT 2001. This definition, established by Congress via their legislative authorities, is the foundation for the Federal Definition of domestic terrorism. The Code of Federal Regulations are merely the general and permanent regulations published by executive department and agencies of the Federal Government. This rule making is empowered by "enabling legislation" following acts passed by Congress. In a rule fight between the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations, the USC wins.
In order for an event to qualify as "Domestic Terrorism," it would have to meet the above guidelines from Title 18. As the investigation continues, this will depend on the indications of intent.