The 15-year-old student accused of fatally shooting his classmates at Michigan’s Oxford High School in November is inching toward a trial to determine his guilt on 24 felony charges. One of them — committing an act of terrorism — has rarely been applied in the context of mass shootings, so the move has reignited a debate over whether such violence should be treated as terrorism in the eyes of the law.
When she announced the charges her office was pursuing against the alleged Oxford gunman, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald acknowledged that the terrorism label was unusual, but said it captured the gravity of the event, and its far-reaching effect, on survivors and the broader community. “What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school?” McDonald said during a December news conference. “Those are victims, too, and so are their families and so is the community. And the charge of terrorism reflects that.”
Several commentators have since echoed McDonald’s viewpoint. And indeed, mass shootings have had a measurable effect on society. A 2019 Gallup poll found that Americans were almost equally concerned about being the victim of a terrorist attack as a mass shooting. That same year, congressional researchers estimated that gun violence in general cost the economy $229 billion annually, factoring in not only security, police, and emergency medical care but also lowered property values and lost business. Additionally, researchers at the University of Ottawa found that, in communities where mass shootings had occurred, home values dropped by 3 percent and employment fell by 2 percent.
The Oxford Mass Shooting Shows the Limits of ‘Hardening’ Schools
But while supporters have hailed McDonald’s decision as a blueprint for prosecutors nationwide, some experts fear that treating mass shootings as terrorism will expand America’s vast counterterrorism apparatus into a new domestic realm. Critics say that system has been ineffective at preventing attacks and has a history of unfairly targeting people of color and other marginalized groups. “They target entire populations based on bias rather than objective evidence of wrongdoing,” Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told The Trace. “Expanding that problematic program to cover other kinds of crime is only going to create more problems.”
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has spent billion of dollars building up its counterterrorism infrastructure, creating the Department of Homeland Security, a network of information sharing “fusion centers,” and a National Security Division to coordinate the Justice Department’s intelligence capabilities.
The U.S. Patriot Act of 2001 defined domestic terrorism but did not attach any penalties to it. Still, labeling an activity as terrorism puts an array of addititional tools at law enforcement’s disposal, including expedited wiretap warrants, social media monitoring, and internet surveillance.
Mitchel Roth, a criminology professor at Sam Houston State University, said that redirecting counterterrorism resources toward mass shooting investigations and prosecutions could undermine constitutional rights and student welfare without much of a payoff. “When a lot of these activities are being done in the garage, or down in the basement, and the parents have no clue what’s going on, no surveillance in the world is going to pick that up,” Roth said. “Bottom line is there’s enough surveillance in the country, and it’s not working as it is.”
The alleged Oxford shooter was charged under an anti-terrorism law passed by the Michigan Legislature in 2002. The statute defines terrorism as a violent felony act intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence or affect the conduct of government. The accused gunman also faces four counts of first-degree murder. The terrorism charge and each of the murder charges carries a possible life sentence.
At least 33 other states and the District of Columbia have also enacted anti-terrorism statutes, though some have a narrower definition that makes them difficult to apply to mass shootings. A week after the Oxford school shooting, prosecutors in Florida, a state whose definition of terrorism is similar to Michigan’s, charged a university student in Daytona Beach with terrorism after his classmates reported him for posting Snapchat messages indicating he may have been planning a mass shooting.
As the number of mass shootings has risen, lawmakers and former counterterrorism officials have advocated leaning more heavily on the country’s counterterrorism system to prevent such attacks. After a 19-year-old killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, two former top federal counterterrorism officials penned an editorial in The Washington Post calling on the FBI to create a “Mass Shooting Prevention Center.” They also suggested that internet service providers create a centralized database of terrorism- and violence-related hashtags, usernames, and other online markers for federal authorities to query.
In New York, meanwhile, state lawmakers pursued legislation to classify shootings at or near schools, places of worship, and businesses as terrorism, and to direct the state’s fusion center — whose partners include the FBI and the CIA — to add mass shooting prevention to its responsibilities. The bill passed the state Senate, but stalled in the Assembly.
Authorities have been inconsistent in charging perpetrators as terrorists even when their crimes seemed to meet state and federal definitions.
In 2015, a white supremacist attacked a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine worshippers. And in 2018, a shooter killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, marking the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in the country’s history. The FBI did not investigate those cases as domestic terrorism, even though the attackers had noted their intent to use such killings as a means to deliver social and political messages to broad audiences.
The FBI did open a domestic terrorism investigation into the 2019 mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, where the gunman had a list of targets that included religious institutions. The mass shooting that occurred at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, later that same year was also labeled by the agency as terrorism, in part because the shooter had written an anti-immigrant screed.
Lance Hunter, an associate professor of international relations at Augusta University, said many scholars and policymakers do not consider mass shootings a form of terrorism because they think of them as an expansion of day-to-day criminal activity. “Terrorist acts are viewed more so as hijackings or bombings; novel acts that fall outside of criminal activity,” Hunter said. “I think the action — the shooting versus a bomb — is a large part of how people view it.”
For one study, Hunter and his colleagues analyzed 105 mass shootings from 1982 to 2018 and found that 86 of them, or more than 80 percent, met at least three out of four key criteria to be considered acts of terrorism under standard definitions. Forty-one mass shootings — 39 percent of the total number analyzed — met all four criteria.
Martha Ginn, a political science professor at Augusta University who co-authored the study, said that consistently framing such crimes as terrorist acts would mean more tips would get forwarded to the FBI and fusion centers, enabling authorities to forestall more attacks. “We need to accept the fact that a mass shooting can be an act of terror so that we can figure how to prevent them from happening,” Ginn said.
School officials in Oxford failed to thwart November’s shooting despite a number of indications that the student might be dangerous. According to a lawsuit filed against the school district on behalf of two students, in the weeks leading up to the killings, the 15-year-old suspect brought a decapitated bird’s head in a mason jar filled with yellow liquid to school. He also brandished bullets while in class and was caught by a teacher openly researching ammunition on his cell phone.
By November 30, the day of the shooting, the concerns about the shooter had prompted some students to stay home.