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Lawmakers were working to redefine domestic terrorism in NY prior to mass shooting

May 18, 2022

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ALBANY, N.Y. — President Biden had a clear message to the nation in regards to the mass shooting at a Tops in Buffalo on Saturday where 10 Black people were killed.

“What happened here is simple and straightforward, terrorism, terrorism, domestic terrorism,” Biden said

Even as early as Saturday, a few hours after the shooting officials were calling it an act of domestic terrorism.

“A white supremacist who has engaged in an act of terrorism and will be prosecuted as such,” Governor Kathy Hochul said in her first address Saturday night.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn echoed the governor’s statement.

“We are now investigating terrorism charges, other murder charges along with working with our partners in a federal government,” Flynn said.

Stephen Belongia, the FBI’s special agent in charge for Buffalo said the full resources of the bureau would be used to investigate the mass shooting.

“The FBI is providing all necessary resources both locally and nationally to investigate this matter,” Belongia said. “We will not stop until every lead is investigated, every piece of evidence is analyzed.

But even prior to the strong messages from the President and others, Albany lawmakers had been working on reclassifying domestic terrorism in New York.

New York State Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, who represents the 38th district, introduced S.3994 at the beginning of the current legislative session.

“This bill says that if somebody whether using a gun, a knife or other weaponry, commits an attack that is motivated by hate with the desire to terrorize people on account of their religion, their race, their ethnicity, their nationality, that that could be classified as an act of domestic terrorism,” Reichlin-Melnick said.

The bill further defines the attack as domestic terrorism if it occurs within 1,000 feet of a school, place of worship, business, or mass gathering site. The bill defines a mass gathering site as anything with more than 25 people.

“This came out actually from an incident that occurred two years before I took office in the Senate in my home county of Rockland County, where an individual went into a local synagogue on a stabbing rampage and stabbed multiple people, one of them fatally.”

Flynn says reclassifying domestic terrorism would be useful as a prosecutor.

“Any law that makes my job easier, quite frankly, is very helpful,” Flynn said. “I mean that’s just one tool that we could use.”

But Flynn said having the tools to sleuth the internet and monitor growing extremism is equally important.

“In a case like this right here, we could use more money for our crime analysis center, so that we can get on the internet and be able to find out about these crimes before they happen.”

The Senate bill also defines the criteria that a targeted attack would be considered domestic terrorism:

“the intent to cause physical harm or death to another because of a belief or perception related to the victims’ race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity or expression, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.”

Attorney Peter Pullano, managing partner at the Rochester office of Tully Rinckey says while legislation like this could provide prosecutors more tools, it could be redundant to laws already on the books in New York.

“Taking the Buffalo example, there is no shortage of laws that can be alleged to have been violated, that are already on the books,” Pullano said. “Certainly whether or not he had the intent of a hate crime or to terrorize, a jury could consider murder case statutes, without ever having to get there (domestic terrorism).”

Senator Reichlin-Melnick says this bill would also enable domestic terrorism charges if a targeted attack occurred, even one where no one was killed.

“It’s not a guarantee that we could prevent any attacks, necessarily, but just as we have with many laws on the books, we want to make sure that people that commit evil and hateful acts pay the full consequences of their action,” Senator Reichlin-Melnick said. “It’s not just murder, this was not done simply to kill those 10 people. It was done to terrorize the black community of Buffalo, New York, and the United States, and we need to define it for what it is.”

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