Federal prosecutors said Sunday that they’re treating the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, as a domestic terrorism case, as the country continues to deal with the aftermath of the massacre that left 22 dead. The death toll rose on Monday, police said.
At a press conference, U.S. Attorney John Bash said he’s consulting the Justice Department and officials are pursuing federal hate crime charges and federal firearm charges against the suspect in the deadly shooting that also left about two dozen people injured. Those charges carry the death penalty.
Federal officials are often hesitant to use the label “domestic terrorism” because the U.S. doesn’t have a law that broadly outlaws such acts. Laws do exist that cover some specific acts of terrorism, but there’s no terrorism-related statute that applies to people such as white supremacists who commit mass shootings, making it difficult to put terrorism charges on them. Many have pushed for Congress to adopt such a statute, and polling indicates most Americans would support such a law.
But Bash said the El Paso massacre appears to meet the statutory definition of domestic terrorism, which is actions dangerous to human life that violate federal or state criminal law, occur within the U.S. and appear intended to intimidate civilians or influence government policy by coercion.
“It appears to be designed to intimidate a civilian population,” he said. “We’re going to do what we do to terrorists in this country ― deliver swift and certain justice.”
Earlier on Sunday, six former National Security Council senior directors for counterterrorism wrote a joint statement calling on the federal government to take domestic terrorism as seriously as international terrorism.
“We call on our government to make addressing this form of terrorism as high a priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11,” read the statement, signed by Joshua Geltzer, Nicholas Rasmussen, Jen Easterly, Luke Hartig, Chris Costa and Javed Ali.
“This also means providing a significant infusion of resources to support federal, state, and local programs aimed at preventing extremism and targeted violence of any kind, motivated by any ideology or directed at any American community. We simply cannot wait any longer,” it continued.
A gunman, who authorities say was legally armed with an assault weapon, opened fire on shoppers and employees Saturday morning at a Walmart store in El Paso, a town that sits on the U.S.-Mexico border. Security photos of the scene obtained by El Paso’s KTSM-TV showed a man entering the building and holding a long firearm.
Authorities said a 21-year-old white man originally from Allen, Texas, is now in custody on capital murder charges and is being held without bond. The federal hate crime and firearm charges prosecutors are pursuing against him carry the death penalty.
Jeanette Harper with the FBI in El Paso said in a press conference Sunday evening that the suspect had no contacts in El Paso and authorities are interviewing acquaintances in the Dallas area, where he’s from. But she said law enforcement so far has found nothing credible that says the suspect was working with a group that was planning another attack.
Sgt. Robert Gomez, a spokesman with the El Paso Police Department, said at the same presser that police have no information on what prompted the gunman to stop firing.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a press conference Sunday that the Mexican government considers the shooting to be an act of terrorism against Mexicans in the U.S. and is mulling whether to ask the U.S. government to extradite the suspect to be tried in Mexico on terrorism charges. He also said Mexico plans to take legal action against those who sold weapons to the suspect, according to The Arizona Republic.
Law enforcement officials in the U.S. are reportedly investigating a racist and xenophobic manifesto that was posted to extremist online forum 8chan before the shooting and may have been penned by the suspect. The writer of the documents expressed hatred for Hispanic people and claimed the massacre was a response “to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” HuffPost has reviewed the manifesto but will not provide a link to it.
Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that about 100 targets of domestic terrorism investigations were arrested in the first three quarters of the federal government’s 2019 fiscal year, which ran from October 2018 through June 2019. Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that individuals in the “majority” of the FBI’s domestic terrorism cases “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
On Sunday, Wray ordered a nationwide threat assessment by the FBI to detect similar threats to the recent slew of shootings, law enforcement officials reportedly told CNN. HuffPost could not independently confirm the directive.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Sunday that six of the people killed in the massacre were Mexican nationals, according to Reuters. He also said seven other Mexicans are among the 26 injured and offered “solidarity to the family.”
Democratic presidential candidates, including former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), whose district included his home of El Paso, linked President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric to the El Paso shooting.
O’Rourke said Sunday that the country has to acknowledge “the open racism we’re seeing.”
“There is an environment of it in the United States. We see it on Fox News, we see it on the internet, but we also see it from our commander in chief,” he told Tapper, citing Trump’s consistently racist remarks on immigration. “He doesn’t just tolerate it, he encourages it.”
Trump said Sunday that “hate has no place in this country,” despite constantly inciting it in tweets and rallies. He still won’t denounce white nationalism.
O’Rourke said there will be a silent march and vigil later Sunday night.
“Tonight, El Paso is standing up against hate, in memory of the lives lost yesterday, and with the resolve to stop this from happening again,” he tweeted.
At a press conference Sunday, officials from El Paso’s Del Sol Medical Center said they took in 11 patients from the shooting, ranging from 35 to 82 years old. Eight were in stable condition and three in critical condition as of Sunday morning, according to the hospital.
The El Paso shooting was the second of three U.S. mass shootings in the past week. Last Sunday, a gunman opened fire on a food festival in Gilroy, California. Less than 24 hours after the El Paso massacre, a shooter opened fire in a popular entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio. From the three shootings, at least 34 people are dead, including two of the shooters.
In the wake of the shootings, Democrats on Sunday called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reconvene the upper chamber, which is currently in recess, so senators can vote on House-passed universal gun background checks legislation. The bill passed in the House earlier this year, but has stalled in the Senate because McConnell won’t bring it to the floor for a vote.
Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.
This story has been updated after the death toll increased Monday morning.