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Cuomo proposes domestic terrorist law to combat 'the enemy within'

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday joined a chorus of officials around the country who have stepped up efforts to legally define acts of “domestic terrorism” in the wake of mass shootings by people who targeted victims based on their race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

Cuomo, in a speech to the New York City Bar Association, proposed creation of the Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act, which he said will make it a specific crime for those who kill people in “a mass attack” based on the victims’ real or perceived race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.

The legislation, which has not yet been made public, would define “mass casualty” as incidents in which at least one person is killed and at least two are injured. The Cuomo administration said that definition parallels the FBI’s definition of a mass casualty incident.

Cuomo’s legislation will propose the same state penalty as for other acts of terrorism: up to life without parole.

“Today, New York State acknowledges the ugly truth: that we have an enemy within," Cuomo said of violence by individuals with “hate-filled hearts.’’

The Democratic governor said there is now a “two-front war on terrorism” in the nation against terrorist acts committed by foreign elements and those by American citizens who target specific groups of victims.

“These are American citizens who are radicalized … by hate for other Americans," he said.

Some states, including Arizona and Georgia, already have laws on the books providing definitions and penalties for acts of domestic terrorism. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States by al-Qaida militants, New York and a slew of other states enacted various anti-terrorism statutes.

In New York, the crime of terrorism is defined as: “A person is guilty of a crime of terrorism when, with intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a unit of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a unit of government by murder, assassination or kidnapping, he or she commits a specified offense."

The chairmen of the Senate and Assembly codes committees, which have jurisdiction over changes to the criminal laws, indicated conceptual support of the Cuomo plan.

Sen. Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Democrat, said he still wants to read the details of the bill to get a better understanding of Cuomo’s plan. But, he said, “Any measure that will protect more New York State residents is something I’m certainly in favor of."

Bailey said New York, with new gun control laws enacted this past session, has been taking an active role while the federal government “is sitting on their hands.’’

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he wants to see how existing state law lines up with what Cuomo is proposing.

But, he said: “Terrorism is terrorism, and the governor’s message is a good one, and I think it’s a clear one. What's the difference if you get killed by a domestic terrorist or an Islamist terrorist? You’re still dead."

After ongoing mass shootings, some of which were hate-inspired against specific groups of victims, a number of Democratic and Republican officials across the country have been calling for new domestic terrorism laws. On Wednesday, New Mexico officials, led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, convened a summit in Santa Fe that resulted in calls for a new law to define and provide specific penalties for domestic terrorist acts, according to media accounts in that state.

Following the recent El Paso mass killings, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, formed a special task force – including various units of government officials – to “analyze and provide advice” on combating domestic terrorism. Abbott, in a statement issued Wednesday, said the goal is “to combat terrorism and root out the extremist ideologies that fuel hatred and violence in our state."

Cuomo on Thursday proposed his own task force to study mass shootings and recommend to the governor and lawmakers ways to prevent such incidents.

On the federal level, several plans have already emerged to make domestic terrorism a specific crime. The U.S. Patriot Act did define domestic terrorism, but there is not a specific crime and penalty accompanying such violence.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI said domestic terrorist acts by white supremacists led to more deaths than any other domestic extremist groups.

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