Editor’s Note: Andrew M. Cuomo is the governor of New York. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion articles at CNN
Two weeks ago, a gunman killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, in what he later told authorities was a targeted attack against Mexicans, according to the arrest affidavit. This tragedy is the latest incident of hate-fueled violence; it’s clear our country is plagued by the toxic cocktail of guns and hate. And while the federal government refuses to address this violence, New York is stepping up with a proposal to call these hateful acts exactly what they are – domestic terrorism.
Hate is nothing new in America. Our country bears the scars of the KKK, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and the Porvenir Massacre in 1918, which led to the execution of 15 Mexicans – just to name a few. Many of us thought these incidents were long in the past, but this hate remains a part of our reality today.
Hate crimes have been on the rise. In recent years, we have seen hateful acts against African-Americans in Charleston, Jews in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New York, Latinos in El Paso and LGBTQ people in Orlando. Many of these targeted groups are wrongly cast as “other,” even though we are a nation made stronger by people from different backgrounds.
Since September 11, far-right extremists carried out nearly three times as many attacks on Americans in the US as Islamic extremists, according to government data cited by the New York Times. It is not just repulsive, immoral, and anti-American – it is illegal and we must confront it by enacting a new law to fit the crime.
That’s why I am proposing that New York state pass a national precedent: a Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act. For anyone who launches a mass attack and kills on the basis of race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, the penalty should be the same as it is for other terrorist crimes: up to life without parole.
If we are going to make meaningful strides to address this problem, we must recognize the enemy within – an American cancer where one cell in the body politic destroys other cells. It spreads in the hidden corners of the internet and from the highest positions in the land, and infects sick and hate-filled hearts.
We must also address the instrumentality of hate: guns.
The federal government is not impotent on this issue; it is politically paralyzed.
The federal government has tackled this issue before. In 1934, to combat organized crime, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed legislation imposing a heavy tax on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. In 1968, in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., federal laws were passed banning mail-order gun sales. In 1994, three former presidents lobbied Congress to pass a 10-year ban on the manufacture of new semi-automatic assault weapons and instituted the first system for background checks.
After the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, New York lawmakers moved swiftly to pass the SAFE Act, which banned assault weapons and high capacity magazines while instituting universal background checks.
It wasn’t easy, but it was right. The New York Legislature had to choose between the gun lobby and public safety in the aftermath of a horrendous tragedy. It was a tough vote but the bill passed on a bipartisan basis.
All the NRA’s fear-mongering has been proven false; in the six years since the SAFE Act was passed, no one has ever complained to me that they have been denied a gun they were legally entitled to own.
Washington Democrats must show that they have the leadership to bring this kind of change to the country. They must expose this President and the Republican senators as political cowards and lackeys for the gun industry. Members of the Senate, Congress, and every Democratic presidential candidate should put aside their own personal politics, stand up to the gun lobby, and offer a strong, unified, comprehensive gun proposal to end the carnage.
Get our free weekly newsletter
We know New York is at its best when we lead the nation through troubled times. We led by passing the most comprehensive gun law in the nation in 2013, and now we are leading again by proposing a new law to combat domestic terrorists.
It’s time for leaders in Washington to do the same. They should step up and do something so we can start saving American lives, and the American soul.