White nationalists could have firearms taken under red flag law proposed by Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris on Wednesday said if elected president she will press Congress to pass a red flag law that would allow law enforcement officials to temporarily seize the firearms of white nationalists that may be on the verge of carrying out a hate crime.

The Democratic presidential candidate's proposal calls for the creation of “domestic terrorism prevention orders” that would give law enforcement and family members of suspected white nationalists or domestic terrorists the ability to petition a federal court to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns if the person exhibits clear evidence of being a danger.

“We need to take action to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and stop violent, hate-fueled attacks before they happen,” Harris said. “By focusing on confronting these domestic terror threats, we can save lives.”

2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa on August 12, 2019. - Harris finishes a multi-day bus tour across Iowa today.
2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa on August 12, 2019. - Harris finishes a multi-day bus tour across Iowa today.

Harris' decision to focus on the risk of white nationalists comes at a moment when there's a growing push at the state level to enact red flag laws that allow law enforcement, or in some cases family members, to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person determined to pose a danger to themselves or others.

Twelve states passed red flag laws — orders that typically are issued for two or three weeks — following last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead. President Trump and Republican lawmakers, who in the past have been resistant to restricting gun owners’ rights, have embraced red flag laws in the aftermath of mass shootings this month in El Paso and Dayton.

Adam Skaggs, chief counsel to the gun control advocacy group Giffords, said that an individual making credible terrorist threats could be disarmed under statutes in existing red flag laws on the books in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

More: 2020 Democrats agree the U.S. needs tighter gun laws. But they differ on the details.

“It’s great that states are making progress on this on a state-by-state basis, but this is a nationwide problem and we need a nationwide solution and that is where a federal solution comes in handy,” said Skagg, who was among gun control advocates briefed by the Harris campaign about the proposal. “(Red flag laws) have been particularly effective in preventing suicide, but there is another problem that really needs attention and that is the rise of hate-fueled crime.”

But Harris’ proposal could also delve into murky legal territory: Is someone espousing hatred toward a group a domestic terrorist or just an angry gadfly pushing the boundaries of free speech and decency?

Matt Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center during the Obama administration, said in an interview that should the Harris proposal gain traction it will be essential to include a provision that a person cannot be deemed a domestic terrorist solely based on First Amendment-protected activity.

Such a provision exists, for example, in the NCTC-constructed “no fly list” that prohibits individuals deemed to be a security risk from traveling on commercial aircraft.

“Here you would have even more protections because there is a petition to a federal court,” said Olsen, who said he advised the Harris campaign on the proposal.

The California senator said she would also look to use executive order, if Congress didn’t act within 100 days of her taking office, to require background checks on all online gun sales. Currently, it’s possible to purchase a weapon online without a background check in 30 states.

“In America, loaded guns should not be a few clicks away for any domestic terrorist with a laptop or smartphone,” Harris said.

Harris rolled out the new policy ideas as many of the two dozen Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination try to standout as gun control champions with the nation’s gun laws once again in the spotlight following this month’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden has vowed to re-implement an assault weapons ban if he’s elected. He helped pass a ten-year ban on military-style weapons in 1994 when he served in the Senate, but the ban expired as Congress failed to extend the law.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said last week she’d set a goal of reducing gun violence deaths by 80% if she’s elected and offered a long list of proposals she would pursue. Among her ideas are creating a federal gun licensing system; banning assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and other accessories that make weapons more deadly; increasing taxes on gun manufacturers by 20 percent, establishing a one-week waiting period for gun purchases and raising the minimum purchase age to 21.

More: Elizabeth Warren wants to reduce firearm deaths by 80%. Here's her plan to do it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has called for a federal licensing system, and along with Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for Walmart, one of the world’s biggest sellers of guns and ammunition, to cease firearms sales.

In addition to closing the online sale loophole and pressing for temporary weapons seizures, Harris said she wants to expand the purview of the National Counterterrorism Center, so it can address the domestic threat of white-nationalist terrorism. The agency is currently prohibited by Congress from handling domestic terrorism cases.

Harris also knocked President Trump, claiming his Justice Department failed to prioritize domestic terrorism investigations. She said under her administration federal authorities would more vigilantly monitor white nationalist websites and forums.

She vowed to commit $2 billion over 10 years to bolster federal law enforcement’s ability to combat and prosecute domestic extremists.

"At a very high level, it's taking an approach that's been around since 9/11 and al-Qaeda and international terrorism," said Olsen, the former NCTC director, of the Harris proposal. "The threat of domestic terrorism is at that level if not greater, so we should take a similar all-government approach and empower organization's like NCTC which have a lot of expertise to develop strategies."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris pitches gun control targeting white nationalists