For the past 25 years, I’ve lived within a nine-minute drive of the site of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. I was serving as the U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas in the early afternoon of April 13, 2014, when I got the call: An active shooter had approached the center and left behind a bloody trail of carnage there and also at the nearby Village Shalom care center. His white nationalist-inspired shooting took the lives of three and permanently scarred our community.
I’ll never forget the image I saw when I arrived at the scene: a 69-year-old grandfather slumped over in his pickup. His 14-year-old grandson also died. At Village Shalom, a 53-year-old woman was slain.
From a law enforcement perspective, I understand the dire threat that radical white nationalists pose to the safety of Americans everywhere. So do many Kansans.
Let me be clear: Without federal action, incidents like what we witnessed in Kansas and El Paso, Texas, on Saturday are only going to get worse. We must take steps to curb white nationalist domestic terrorism now.
If verified, it appears that the El Paso shooter left behind the deranged writings of white nationalism, targeting immigrants and a “Hispanic invasion.” This is at least the third such hate-fueled manifesto left in a post on the website 8Chan before a terror attack since March.
The statistics couldn’t be clearer. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, last year the number of hate groups in America climbed to record levels. FBI data shows reported hate crimes rising by 30% from 2014 to 2017.
We have a problem here and it’s getting worse.
Make no mistake — the rhetoric of our elected leaders matters with this crisis. Nationally, and even here in Kansas, our leaders need to be more mindful about whether their words and actions could be interpreted to inspire hate-driven violence.
But recent policy decisions have also made us less safe. For example, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security launched CVE, the Countering Violent Extremism grant program, to fund local initiatives aimed at preventing domestic terrorism. Two recipients of these CVE grants dealt with white nationalism by combating recruitment online, and by helping members of these groups transition out of the movement.
However, both these programs have seen grants ended under the current presidential administration. As of today, the administration has failed to renew any CVE grants going forward.
Sadly, this is a pattern. The Office of Community Partnerships is a Homeland Security program that works with local partners to combat jihadists and white nationalists. Under the new administration, its budget was reduced by more than 80% and its staff was cut to eight people.
We also must look for new ways to address the threat. The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and others need an increased focus on white nationalists. But we also need to incentivize online spaces such as 8Chan, Reddit, and even Facebook to be more mindful about their own roles in enabling violent messages to spread.
While I appreciate that FBI Director Christopher Wray has acknowledged that most domestic terror cases are driven by white supremacist violence, we’re clearly not doing enough to keep Americans safe.
I believe most of us can recognize this threat, but I understand there’s a wider gulf elsewhere that we must address, too.
I grew up as a hunter and currently own eight firearms. I know there’s room to love firearms and our rich Kansan heritage while recognizing the need for responsible, commonsense gun safety.
The Jewish Community Center shooter was a convicted felon who obtained his weapon illegally through a straw purchaser at a gun show. Clearly, our system isn’t working.
We must do more to monitor and oppose violent white nationalists. We must also address the loopholes in our gun violence framework and push for commonsense reform. This is a national health crisis.
Otherwise, more people will die.
Barry Grissom is a former U.S. attorney from the District of Kansas and a candidate for U.S. Senate.