Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting sparks debate over definition of domestic terrorism

To some in the community, the attack on a Colorado Planed Parenthood clinic resembled an act of domestic terrorism, sparking a debate over what to call the rampage. But the legal system may not resolve that question.

'It's become quite a partisan issue,' former U.S. Justice Department official says

Roy Kieffer pauses after laying flowers Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in honor of the victims of Friday's deadly shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo. The deadly attack has sparked a debate in the U.S. about what constitutes domestic terrorism. (Daniel Owen/Associated Press)

The man accused of killing three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic allegedly brought several guns, ammunition and propane tanks that officials say he assembled around a car.

For hours, he holed up inside the clinic, unleashing a fusillade that wounded nine others and sent shoppers scattering inside surrounding buildings during a standoff with police, authorities say. 

To some in the community, the attack resembled an act of domestic terrorism, sparking a debate over what to call the rampage even before suspect Robert Lewis Dear was even taken into custody. But the legal system may not resolve that question.

Dear faces state charges of first-degree murder, and the federal criminal code has no specific, catchall charge for acts of domestic terrorism.

That means federal prosecutors pursuing charges for ideologically motivated violence often turn to other statutes — such as those for firearms, explosives, hate crimes or murder — to cover offenses that could arguably be labelled as terror.

The punishment may be the same, but generally without the branding more often associated with international terrorism.

Robert Lewis Dear, 57, faces state charges of first-degree murder. The federal criminal code has no specific, catchall charge for acts of domestic terrorism. (Colorado Springs Police)

"There has long been some interest in defining acts of domestic terrorism as terrorism. It's become quite a partisan issue," said William Yeomans, a former high-ranking official in the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division.

But given the number of laws already available to federal prosecutors, he added, "Whether it's domestic terrorism or not, it doesn't really matter."

Police have not yet detailed a motive in the Friday killings of one police officer and two civilians at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, though a law enforcement official said Dear said "no more baby parts" during rambling comments after his arrest.

Dear used a rifle in the shooting and also brought other firearms and ammunition, according to an official familiar with the case who was not authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has called the killings a "form of terrorism," and Planned Parenthood has said witnesses believe the gunman was motivated by opposition to abortion.

Dear has been described by acquaintances as a loner who once gave neighbours anti-Obama literature but never any indication he would target a clinic.

A coalition of advocacy groups is calling on the U.S. Justice Department, which is reviewing the case, to investigate violence against abortion clinics as domestic terrorism.

Federal authorities have the option of filing their own charges, but haven't yet said whether they will do so. Among the federal government's potential avenues is a 1994 law known as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it a crime to injure or intimidate abortion clinic patients and employees.

Federal law defines domestic terrorism as dangerous acts that take place inside the U.S. that are intended to intimidate the public or coerce government policy or conduct — a description meant to encompass, among others, anti-government anarchists, white supremacists and animal-rights activists.

Lack of clarity 

But without one all-encompassing statute, the actual charges can vary.

In the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, Timothy McVeigh faced charges including conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, malicious destruction of federal property and the murders of law enforcement officials. A Florida man in 2012 was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of arson and damaging a reproductive health facility after firebombing an abortion clinic.

While the Justice Department consistently charges individuals who look to join organizations like the ISIS with providing material support for a foreign terror organization, there's no comparable statute for prosecuting domestic crimes motivated by extremist ideologies and no catchall "domestic terrorism" charge or offense in the federal criminal code.

That lack of clarity can make it hard to count the number of domestic terror prosecutions, or differentiate that crime from other illegal activity, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.

"Individuals considered to be domestic terrorists by federal law enforcement may be charged under nonterrorism statutes, making it difficult to grasp from the public record exactly how extensive this threat is," the report said.

'The original domestic terrorism'

The issue arose in July when the Justice Department brought federal hate crime charges against Dylann Roof in the massacre a month earlier at a black church in Charleston, S.C.

Asked at a news conference about the absence of domestic terrorism charges, Attorney General Loretta Lynch replied, "Well, as you know, there is no specific domestic terrorism statute." But she did describe hate crimes as "the original domestic terrorism."

I think it's very important for the government to call a terrorist a terrorist. I think a reluctance to do that is a terrible thing.- Heidi Beirich, Southern Poverty Law Center

The Justice Department in the last year has paid added public attention to the domestic terrorism threat. Last year, it revived a domestic terrorism executive committee that had fallen into disuse after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the government shifted focus to international terrorism. More recently, officials appointed a domestic terrorism counsel to coordinate the flow of information.

Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Dear "should be charged with crimes that take him away forever" and that the federal government has many tools to do just that.

But, she added, "I think it's very important for the government to call a terrorist a terrorist. I think a reluctance to do that is a terrible thing."

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