Is Killing Liberals a Hate Crime?

Only in a few states.

Tennessee church shooting suspect Jim D. Adkisson

Jim David Adkisson, who confessed to opening fire in a Knoxville church last weekend, told police that he was motivated by a hatred for gays and liberals and, in particular, that “liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.” Authorities are now investigating the shooting as a hate crime. Do liberals get special protections under the law?

Not in Tennessee. The Volunteer State has two laws dealing with crimes motivated by hatred toward a particular group of people, but neither one specifies “political affiliation” or anything similar as a protected characteristic. The first law, Section 40-35-114 of the Tennessee code, allows a court to enhance the sentence for a crime committed because of the victim’s “race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or gender.” That could still apply to Adkisson, since he was targeting homosexuals as well as liberals, but any enhancement to his sentence might be superfluous: If convicted, he would likely face multiple life sentences or the death penalty. The second state law makes it a felony to intimidate someone for exercising his or her civil rights, and specifically mentions “race, color, ancestry, religion or national origin,” leaving out both political and sexual orientation.

Just a handful of states designate political violence as a “hate crime.” West Virginia makes it a felony to target a person because of “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation or sex.” Oregon includes labor unions as well, protecting “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, political affiliation or beliefs, membership or activity in or on behalf of a labor organization or against a labor organization, physical or mental disability, age, economic or social status or citizenship of the victim.” The District of Columbia defines “bias-related crime” according to “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibility, physical disability, matriculation, or political affiliation.” Iowa also protects political affiliation, and the Louisiana  code mentions “creed.”(The federal government, like most states, does not include political affiliation in its definition of hate crimes.)

Actual prosecutions of hate crimes based on the victim’s political affiliation are rare in the United States, according to legal experts. Annual crime compendiums from the individual states mentioned above occasionally categorize hate crimes as politically motivated, though such cases often involve another protected trait like race or religion. The Anti-Defamation League does not include “political affiliation” in its model legislation for anti-hate laws.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Steven Freeman of the Anti-Defamation League, John W. Gill Jr. of the Knox County District Attorney’s Office, Jack Levin of Northeastern University, Philip Morrison of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute, and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University.