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Arizona's Martha McSally pens bill to make domestic terrorism a federal offense

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Amid a growing trend of domestic terror attacks in the United States, Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally wants legislation on the books that makes such acts of violence a federal crime.  Currently there is a criminal statute for international terrorism, but not domestic.

McSally's bill comes as the FBI has issued a new warning about domestic terror threats in the wake of deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The bill says "violent extremists could become inspired by these and previous high-profile attacks to engage in similar acts of violence." 

What is domestic terrorism?

The FBI currently defines domestic terror as acts of violence "perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature."   But as more attacks are taking place within the homeland,  individuals who commit these violent acts will ultimately be indicted on different federal charges — hate crimes or weapons possession. The reason: Domestic terrorism is defined in the U.S. legal code but it is not codified as a law that can be prosecuted. 

McSally said in a statement to CBS that because of that existing gap "the absence of a federal domestic terrorism crime makes it more difficult to track acts of domestic terror and reduces uniformity in charging and sentencing." Currently on the state level, McSally notes, "Arizona is leading the nation by example as it currently has a terrorism statue in state law."

The Republican's proposed legislation seeks a range of punishments for those that carry out acts of domestic terrorism that results in murder including life in prison or the death penalty. It also looks to criminalize politically motivated violence, recognize victims of terrorism and allows federal authorities to charge suspects with acts of domestic terrorism.

The bill also asks for an annual report on domestic terror threats compiled by the Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Homeland Security. The report would include an "assessment of the domestic terrorism threat, including connections between domestic extremism and acts of terrorism committed abroad and an analysis of incidents or attempted incidents of domestic terrorism that have occurred in the United States."

"As someone who fought terrorism overseas, I understand the importance of calling out terrorism wherever it is. Domestic terrorism is in our backyard and we need to call it and treat it under the law the same as other forms of terrorism," said McSally. 

"For too long we have allowed those who commit heinous acts of domestic terrorism to be charged with related crimes that don't portray the full scope of their hateful actions. That stops with my bill. The bill I am introducing will give federal law enforcement the tools they have asked for so that they can punish criminals to the fullest extent of the law," she added. 

McSally's proposal is the latest in a rallying cry among lawmakers seeking to make incidents like the ones in El Paso and Dayton a federal offense. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, told CBS' "Face the Nation" just last week that he supports making domestic terrorism a federal crime. 

"We're seeing a very alarming increase in domestic terrorism. We need to make sure the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have the tools they need to go and root out — whether it's white supremacist, whether it's radicals from the left that are committing some of these crimes," said Scalise. 

In the meantime, the Justice Department said it was officially treating the El Paso shooting as domestic terrorism after the 21-year old suspect, who is accused of killing at least 22 people, allegedly wrote a racist essay in which he denounced the increasing Hispanic population in Texas.    

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