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The Gun Doesn’t Have to Go Off for It to Be a Hate Crime

An analysis of federal data reveals a pattern of intimidation-by-firearm.

The day seemed to be ending like any other, with people traveling their familiar routes home and the sun descending behind the red maple and cottonwood trees. Yvonne, a black woman in her 30s, was driving with her five young children on a two-lane road in Oakland County, Michigan, 45 minutes northwest of Detroit. She had just eased her car into the right lane when she glanced at her rearview mirror and saw a dark green Bonneville speeding up behind her. The vehicle abruptly pulled to the left, beside Yvonne, and kept pace with her car until they were both stopped by a red light. She looked over and saw the driver, a white man in his 20s. Next to him was a white woman of the same age. Yvonne’s window was cracked. A report of the March 8, 2013 incident notes Yvonne’s clear memory of what happened next. She heard the man scream, “Learn how to drive, niggers!”

When the light changed, the man swerved in front of Yvonne’s car. (Her real name is redacted in law enforcement documents.) She tried to slow down to avoid him, but he pressed his breaks, too. Yvonne saw the Bonneville’s passenger reach under the seat and come up with an L-shaped object that the woman then passed to the driver. He began to wave it threateningly. Yvonne’s kids, realizing it was a handgun, started to scream.

A little farther down the road, traffic came to a standstill, trapping Yvonne and her children, who then ranged in age from 7 to 16. At the first opportunity, she cranked the wheel, made a U-turn, and sped off in the other direction, racing to her house, where she felt safe.

Hate crimes and gun violence are usually treated as separate issues, except when they tragically collide, as they did earlier this summer when 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly shot and killed nine members of a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. But events like Charleston are ultimately outliers. It is the kind of hate crime that Yvonne experienced that is reflective of the far more ordinary ways in which firearms are used to terrorize and intimidate people.

Jack McDevitt, the director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, concludes that firearms often serve a distinct purpose when used in hate crimes. Typically, he says, hate crime “offenders often want to punish victims up close and personally,” beating their target with “hands, fists, or something like a rock, stick, or brick.” These incidents recall the brutality caught on camera during the march on Selma, when black protesters were attacked with a variety of improvised weapons, including a rubber hose wrapped in barbed wire. But when a gun is pulled during a hate crime, McDevitt says, it may be because “the offender is trying to get the victim to do something — move out of a neighborhood or leave a workplace or school.” The firearm is displayed “to make the threat more credible.”

Unlike the Charleston attack, Yvonne’s interaction didn’t result in an arrest, nor generate so much as a news item in a local paper. Instead, it was dumped into a repository called the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which is maintained by the FBI.

NIBRS is not comprehensive — participation is not mandatory, and less than 6,500 of the country’s roughly 18,000 police departments reliably submit records to the database. But when it comes to detailed crime statistics, it is the best resource available.

Between 2011 and 2013, several thousand police agencies, spread across 27 states, reported a total of 8,132 hate crimes to NIBRS. Of those, 207 involved firearms. An analysis by The Trace and researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice show that Yvonne’s encounter fits in with the majority of those crimes.

Blacks were targeted by whites in about 20 percent of the 207 crimes, and were attacked more often than members of any other racial group, regardless of the race of the perpetrator. There were half as many black-on-white attacks in the files. Hate crimes where the victim and the perpetrator share the same race also occurred — in those cases, the actions of the aggressor were motivated by religious or sexual prejudice. In the vast majority of the hate crimes recorded, a single person was victimized; when there were multiple victims, the race of the primary victim was used for the purpose of this study.

In all, there were 79 incidents in which an anti-black bias was the known motive (more than twice as many as crimes driven by any other bias). Whites were found to be the perpetrator in 82 percent of these cases, but the victims were not exclusively African-American — sometimes they belonged to other races but were singled out for association, perhaps for having a black boyfriend or girlfriend. By contrast, there were a total of 34 anti-white incidents, about 62 percent of which were carried out by blacks.

But what stands out the most is that in almost every case, the gun was not used as a tool for killing. Of the 207 hate crimes that involved firearms, 107 of them resulted in no injury at all, while another 25 caused only minor, unspecified physical damage. Most of these incidents — 140 of them — were classified as aggravated assaults, though a review of underlying police reports shows that there was very rarely a physical altercation. Of the remaining hate crimes, 26 were classified as robberies, and another 31 as “weapon law violations.” Only three were labeled as murders.

Around the same time Yvonne had her violent encounter on the road, in 2013, a similar incident took place in Kelso, Washington, a tiny city that is 85 percent white and just two percent African-American. The whole episode took place in a flash. It was early evening, and two black children were hanging out in their front yard. Then a white man pulled up in a dark-colored Jeep Cherokee, pointed a gun in their direction, and yelled a racial epithet. Someone nearby called the police, and the man drove off and was never heard from again.

Incidents like these rarely capture widespread or sustained attention before disappearing into a database — if they are reported at all. Understandably, horrors such as Charleston tend to get the headlines: In April 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller, a 74-year-old white supremacist, shot and killed three people in separate shootings outside a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home in Overland Park, Kansas. In August 2012, Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old white supremacist, shot and killed six members of a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, then took his own life. In July 1999, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a 21-year-old white supremacist, went on a three-day shooting spree in the suburbs of a Chicago, killing a black man and a Korean man, and wounding several Orthodox Jews before fatally crashing his car into a pole.

The offenders in crimes like the run-in in Oakland County and the massacres in Charleston are all motivated by bigotry. But the outcomes are markedly different. According to Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, that’s because white supremacists are “mission offenders,” whose “primary identity revolves around being a warrior for their race, fighting in a racial holy war.” For them, “a gun is a very important weapon in their arsenal,” and when they take it out to commit a hate crime, they are the rare ones who will use it for murder. Whereas for those who harbor serious prejudice — but don’t think of white power as their life’s organizing principal — the gun is a means to achieving “some sort of hierarchical compliance over the victim, a way to put that person in his place,” Levin explains. Criminologists who study hate crimes call these offenders “defensive-reactives” — people who feel as though they’re responding to “a sign of disrespect.”

Defensive-reactives are interested in scaring or humbling their targets, but stop short of shooting them or taking their lives. In the 207 incidents, they are the type of offender who shows up again and again. At a bar in Grayling, Michigan, for instance, a black man in his 30s was having drinks with a few of his friends one night two years ago. A middle-aged white man came in, made a joke about the black man’s skin color, caused an argument, and then said he was going to his home across the street to retrieve his gun and shoot everyone. Before the cops were called, the man could be seen standing in his doorway, waving a 9 mm in the air.

This is the kind of gun violence that isn’t often talked about in America — the type where the goal is to intimidate and the damage is psychological but no less real. After their scare, Yvonne’s children reported having nightmares. When they got in her car, perhaps for the morning ride to school, they refused to wear their seatbelts. They were worried the Bonneville would return, and didn’t want to be restricted from looking out the back window, just in case.

[Photo: Flickr user Geoffrey Fairchild]