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Firearms Have Killed 82 of the 86 Victims of Post-9/11 Domestic Terrorism

Analysis shows that guns are the element that deadly attacks have in common.

Standing before a packed courtroom last week, convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev addressed the victims of the terrorist attack and owned up to his actions:

“I am guilty … if there’s any lingering doubt about that, let there be no more. I did do it along with my brother … ”

“I prayed for Allah to bestow his mercy upon the deceased, those affected in the bombing, and their families.”

The “deceased” that Tsarnaev was referring to were the three people killed by the explosions near the finish line, as well as the police officer assassinated by the brothers as he sat in his squad car. Tsarnaev’s contrition did nothing to sway the judge, who — without hesitation — sentenced him to death.

The Boston bombing happened to return to the news while another act of extremism became the latest to dominate headlines: the mass shooting allegedly perpetrated by Dylann Storm Roof at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They are not the most obvious events to compare. But making that side-by-side assessment highlights a striking security trend.

The two attacks share few details. They were driven by different motives. They attacked different targets. And they triggered different reactions. Within minutes, everyone knew what happened in Boston was terrorism. How to categorize what happened in Charleston was less clear, leading to days of debate in the news media as to the true nature of the incident. Was it a hate crime, or was it a terrorist attack?

Lost in the discussion of ends was the equally important issue of means. But it’s this factor — the means — that arguably creates the most illuminating contrast. In Boston, two perpetrators employing two improvised explosive devices killed a combined three people on the marathon route. In Charleston, one alleged perpetrator employing a single handgun killed nine worshipers – three times the number of people killed by the two separate bombs.

Roof’s massacre in one of the nation’s most well-known black churches adds to a growing string of “lone wolf” attacks on American soil. The one thing that nearly all of them have in common? Firearms.

Since 2002, guns have been responsible for 95 percent of all deaths at the hands of domestic terrorists.

TheTrace-Terrorism-FirearmsinDeathsWhen thinking about terrorism in the post-9/11 era, we should think Charleston, not Boston. The former is the new paradigm; the latter not so much. What we witnessed in South Carolina’s seaside haven fits the new norm of violent political extremism in the United States. Deadly terrorism now comes out of the barrel of a gun.

When a Hate Crime Is Also Domestic Terrorism

The armed assault on parishioners attending a bible study and prayer session was initially treated as a hate crime: an act of violence motivated by bias against a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability. Roof, after all, had reportedly told one survivor that he targeted the victims because they were black.

But with his alleged attack, Roof also reportedly hoped to inspire a civil war pitting whites against blacks. This clearly political motive makes his actions terrorism under the statutory definition. According to federal law, domestic terrorism is any violent crime that occurs within the United States and seeks: to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. The Charleston shooting shows how some criminal acts of violence, when intended to intimidate or coerce a protected segment of society, can be both a hate crime and a terrorist attack.

TheTrace-Terrorism-DefinitionAs part of an ongoing research project that draws upon open-source materials and news reports, I have been monitoring and analyzing domestic terrorism attacks like the Boston bombing and the Charleston massacre. In all, there have been such 142 attacks in the United States since January 1, 2002. The vast majority fail to kill anyone. The smaller subset of strikes that does produce fatal consequences is the more disturbing — which is to say, effective — form of domestic terrorism, and as such, deserves special attention.

Different Motives, Different Methods, Different Outcomes

Breaking down the 142 domestic-terror cases by the specific agenda of the attackers shows that the most common type has been ecoterrorist attacks associated with left-wing ideologies, the vast majority of which were intended to make a political statement without injuring anyone. Only two left-wing attacks have resulted in fatalities.

The attacks emanating from the other side of the political spectrum, while fewer in number, have drawn more blood. There have been 11 lethal strikes by right-wing terrorists, many of them either Christian fundamentalists or white supremacists, resulting in 29 deaths. 

A third category includes jihadist and nonpartisan antigovernment attacks. These accounted for the remaining 11 incidents and represent the deadliest subcategory, resulting in 54 fatalities. In relative terms, jihadists have claimed more lives per attack than any other group, killing 23 people in just five incidents. This is largely the result of Nidal Hasan’s bloody rampage at Fort Hood, which took the lives of 13 people in 2009.

In all, since 2002 there have been 24 deadly acts of terrorism on American soil. Combined, they have claimed 86 lives, an average of 3.6 lives per attack.

TheTrace-Terrorism-FirearmsinAttacksThese are all illuminating statistics, but arguably the most profound takeaway comes from an analysis of which types of weapons are responsible for killing Americans during the commission of political extremism. Unambiguously, the deadliest means of terror in the post-9/11 United States has been the gun. Firearms, indeed, have been used in all but one of the lethal terrorist attacks perpetrated since 2002 — the exception being Joseph Stack’s aerial assault on the IRS offices in Austin, which killed an employee of the tax agency. Even the Boston bombers used a handgun to kill one of their four murder victims.

In the final count, firearms have claimed 82 of the 86 lives lost as a result of domestic terrorism since 2002.

A Tale of Two Bombings

The day after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death, he was transferred to the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, to await his execution. The Alcatraz of the Rockies, as it is sometimes called, houses numerous convicted terrorists, including Faisal Shahzad, who is serving a life sentence for his attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. Shahzad would be awaiting his execution like Tsarnaev were it not for the critical difference between their attacks: Shahzad’s device failed to detonate.

Since the deadly Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh used 5,000 pounds of fertilizer in a truck bomb to bring down half of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the U.S. government has taken great strides to limit the availability of explosive-precursor chemicals. McVeigh’s crime, which killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others, was a wake-up call. The U.S. government reacted appropriately by imposing strict restrictions on dangerous materials, such as requiring fertilizer manufacturers to use less ammonium nitrate in their products and requiring licenses for the purchase of certain detonation devices.

The regulations instituted in the wake of Oklahoma City are a big reason why Shahzad couldn’t assemble a working bomb. Unable to purchase an effective blasting cap and weapons-grade fertilizer, he turned to M-88 fireworks and a commonly available garden stimulant, guaranteeing the failure of his device. The best domestic terrorists have been able to do is to create makeshift IEDs like the two exploding pressure cookers that the Tsarnaev brothers used to kill three people. It does not minimize the loss of life or the magnitude of the injuries in Boston to note the relative limits of those devices.

TheTrace-Terrorism-TrendsNor is it hard to imagine how different the outcomes might have been had the Tsarnaevs or Shahzad used guns as their primary weapons instead. All three terrorists did have firearms. The Tsarnaevs were in possession of a 9 mm Ruger pistol and an 18-round extended-capacity magazine, using the gun to execute an MIT police officer and fire on officers during the subsequent manhunt. Shahzad owned a 9 mm Kel-Tec SUB-2000 assault-rifle with a 15-round extended-capacity magazine.

It’s an uncomfortable question to contemplate, to be sure. But how many more people might have been killed had the three attackers opened fire with their semi-automatic weapons on the crowds around them, rather than taking their chances with a fuse?


For further reading and access to raw data on domestic terrorism in the post-9/11 era, see: the START center’s Global Terrorism Database; the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Extremist Files”; and the list of “Deadly Attacks Since 9/11” maintained by the New America Foundation’s International Security Data Site.


Louis Klarevas is a security analyst and author of the forthcoming Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings (Prometheus 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @Klarevas.

[Photo of Ft. Hood shooting: Sgt. Jason R. Krawczyk]