Special: Synagogue shooting: What can be done to stop the attacks?

May. 03, 2019 AT 10:25 p.m. EDT

After a gunman killed one person and injured three others at a California synagogue last week, the panelists discussed what was behind the shooting and what is being done to stop gun violence.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra. Last weekend a gunman killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in California. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was at the White House this week, a guest of President Trump.

RABBI YISROEL GOLDSTEIN: (From video.) The way we react to darkness is with light. I should have been dead by now based on the rule of statistics. I was in the line of fire, bullets flying all the way. My fingers got blown off, but I did not stop.

MR. COSTA: The president spoke about the woman who lost her life in that shooting.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We mourn for the loss of one extraordinary member of that congregation, Laurie Gilbert-Kaye, who stood in front of the shooter and gave her life to protect her rabbi.

MR. COSTA: What was behind this shooting and what is being done to stop violence like this?

Here to discuss it all, Carrie Johnson, national justice reporter for NPR; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post ; Laura Jarrett, correspondent for CNN; and Ed O’Keefe, political correspondent for CBS News.

Carrie, when the Department of Justice grapples with violence of this nature – that can be white nationalists, that can be anti-Semitic – what are they doing to address it across the country in terms of law enforcement, in terms of surveillance? What’s the plan?

CARRIE JOHNSON: You know, Bob, this is a challenge for law enforcement and it’s been for generations, because having hateful beliefs is not a crime. It’s protected by the First Amendment, and the FBI can’t engage in surveillance based on First Amendment protected activity. So often they’re reliant on tips from the public or a family member of someone about to go haywire. In fact, in this case in California the FBI says it did start to get tips five minutes before the shooting because the shooter allegedly posted a manifesto online; five minutes was not enough time for the FBI to interdict this person. And that’s essentially where the Bureau is in terms of challenges with First Amendment activity and having enough information about a suspect to stop something before it happens.

MR. COSTA: Laura, no domestic terror statutes at all?

LAURA JARRETT: No, and I think that comes as sort of a surprise to many people because, obviously, we see acts that colloquially everyone thinks of as terrorism all the time, and people understand international terrorism pretty well. I think people understand what we call material support cases, cases where people are inspired by ISIS and do something terrible here in the United States. Those get prosecuted all the time. But sort of the homegrown white nationalist uprisings that we’ve seen over even just the last couple of months and years – think about something like Charlottesville, think about the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting – those cases are really, really hard to make, and so what DOJ has been doing is using the hate-crimes statute, which is something that does exist under federal law. But even with that if the person doesn’t have a specific intent against a protected group you can’t prosecute them. So it puts law enforcement, as Carrie said, I think sort of handicapped on these issues, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite in Congress to do something about it and actually have a domestic terrorism statute to address some of these broader issues.

ED O’KEEFE: Well, can you imagine what that debate would be like? Well, this group should be considered a – but this group shouldn’t, but then someone would say this group should be. And remember, every time this kind of thing happens now I just think back to when then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned in a big homeland security assessment about lone wolf – male lone wolf attackers, and you know, Washington lost its mind, saying how could you say that some American would turn on his own fellow citizens in such a way. Well, time after time after time it’s been some guy who takes out people at a church, a synagogue, a synagogue, a shopping mall, and as you said there’s no way to prosecute it. But when you have a Congress that can’t agree on when to go to lunch, how on earth are they ever going to agree on something like this? And it just begs the question of has this become so deeply entrenched in society that Washington won’t be able to sort it out, we all have to sort it out some other way?

MR. COSTA: What about gun laws, Dan? After tragedies and shootings like this in the past, there has sometimes been a clamor for changes to federal gun law. Is that happening this time, or does it speak to Ed’s point about the reality of gridlock on Capitol Hill?

DAN BALZ: Well, it speaks directly to the issue of gridlock and it speaks in some way to the – to the worrisome situation that we’ve become callous to these things and we almost – we move on so quickly that we don’t even think about, well, what could be done, and particularly in the area of gun legislation. I think that those have been tried enough, and I think the political system has been frozen on that front and can’t move forward.

Interestingly, Senator Harris – Kamala Harris – when she was at a CNN town hall debate a few weeks ago said if she’s president she would send a package to Congress. If, after 100 days there was no action, she would take executive action to move in some specific ways on restricting guns, and particularly on background checks. That’s the first time we’ve seen a clear declaration or another way to try to get some of those things done.

MR. O’KEEFE: But after Sandy Hook the Obama administration looked into that and there was very little they ultimately determined they could do that wouldn’t get tossed out in court right away. And so it was an interesting proposal of hers, but it’s one that just hasn’t proven to work in the last few years, might not go very far.

MS. JARRETT: Well, this administration has shown the vulnerability of using executive orders, and how easily, I think, those can be undone. But she may feel as if that’s the only option. I think certainly at a town hall when you’re trying to get votes early in a campaign that sounds persuasive to people who are craving just even some movement at all on this issue.

MR. BALZ: I think that’s right. I mean, I think it’s certainly one way to try to satisfy the Democratic base, but also to suggest, well, at least we will move on this. We will – we will try to take action. You know, let’s see what happens with it.

MS. JOHNSON: And I point out that this Supreme Court, with its newest member Brett Kavanagh, appears more likely to want to act on gun rights in a way that the court has refused to for many, many years. And Kavanaugh, unlike his predecessor and mentor, Justice Anthony Kennedy, seems more favorable to gun rights than gun restrictions.

MR. COSTA: We’ve been talking about the 2020 presidential campaign. You had Vice President Biden recently enter the race and lead his announcement with a reference to Charlottesville and what happened there – a woman died as part of a white nationalist uprising in that Virginia city. Is this going to be a national conversation not just about scattered violence at synagogues and places of worship or across the country at different moments? Will there actually be a political debate about white nationalism like we have never seen, or not?

MR. O’KEEFE: I think we’re getting close to that point. But, you know, the reason he included that footage in that moment is primarily because, his aides will tell you, that’s the moment he decided he had to run. That watching the president respond to that, when he got asked and he said, well, there are good people on both sides of this was the moment that set him off, and he realized that he might not have a choice, that he has to do this.

It also spoke to the broader point that he was trying to make to Democrats overall, which is: Don’t take your eye off the prize. We have to beat this guy. This is one of the most abhorrent, galling moments, in Biden’s view, of the president’s tone and sort of words not doing anything to unite the country. But he could have used any number of instances, Democrats would say. And it won’t necessarily just be about that. But there’s a broader argument to make – and Democrats certainly enjoy making it – that he is responsible for a lot of this, or he’s stoking it.

MR. COSTA: Let’s pull back to our Justice Department reporters to finish this discussion. Inside of the Department of Justice, they know that this happened at the synagogue in California. You also had a recent attack at a mosque in New Zealand. You had black churches in Louisiana, a synagogue in Pittsburgh. What do law enforcement officials make of this wave, here in the United States but also globally?

MS. JARRETT: I think they will acknowledge there is a real uptick in hate crimes, especially, I think, you know, they’ve seen an uptick in anti-Semitic acts of violence. In particular I think the FBI knows there’s a problem. But as Carrie has said, you know, there’s a question of, well, what do we do about it? And also, the fact is, they just don’t keep great stats on hate crimes. And so part of the issue is, well, how do you address the problem if every state reports them a little bit differently, everyone’s counting differently.

And so, again, it’s part of what the value would be in having a domestic terrorism statute is there might be some more uniformity to it. But right now, it appears officials are sort of just – you know, this is the hand that we’re dealt. All we can do is enforce the laws. And the current hate crime statute, I mean, it can carry a life sentence. It can carry death, depending on the circumstances. So it’s a serious offense. The question is just, you know, can you use it?

MS. JOHNSON: And one of the things I’ve been hearing from retired FBI agents in particular is they are concerned that streams of hatred that originate maybe in the United States spread to New Zealand, spread to Australia, and these people are radicalizing each other online, just the way we saw after 9/11 certain kinds of extremists radicalize. And it’s very difficult for law enforcement – international law enforcement to share information about those threats and act on them quickly. This is going to be one of the challenges moving forward.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re there, check out the Washington Week -ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And see you next time.


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