By State Representative Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis)
American grocery stores, houses of worship, schools, and entertainment venues all have one thing in common: they are no longer safe.
Since 2020, there have been roughly 1,509 mass shootings in the United States, including 202 so far in 2022 according to the Gun Violence Archive. Across the country, nearly 1,400 people have been killed in mass shootings over the past two years, with many more injured.
There are many elements at play here; easy access to guns and an inadequate mental health care system among them. But for many African Americans and people of color, white supremacy – one of the oldest American evils – poses a significant threat to our lives.
The May 14 mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, is just one example of how white supremacy and unbridled access to guns can turn deadly. At roughly 2:30 p.m., an 18-year-old white supremacist entered a grocery store parking lot armed with body armor and a semi-automatic rifle emblazoned with the n-word and killed 10 people, all of whom were Black. Three other shoppers were injured. The shooter, who published a racist manifesto before the shooting, live-streamed the attack online.
Like many modern-day white supremacists, the Buffalo shooter claims he was radicalized on the internet. The ease with which young people can access unchecked hate speech online coupled with a lack of education of American history and the role of systemic racism in our country paves the way for hate crimes. The Buffalo shooter was motivated, in part, by the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which warns whites that they are being “replaced” in droves by people of color and immigrants. Given a platform by pundits such as Tucker Carlson, this “theory” serves as a call to action for white supremacists. And they are answering those calls.
According to FBI crime data, hate crimes in Indiana spiked in 2020, with 186 hate crimes reported that year. Thirty-four percent of those crimes targeted Black Hoosiers. Unfortunately, we have no legislation that would sufficiently sentence those who commit a hate crime in Indiana. Our state is one of just four in the nation without a comprehensive hate crime law on the books. Senate Enrolled Act No. 198, passed in 2019, makes no direct reference to crimes targeting individuals of specific races or national origins. The law simply states sentencing can be based on whether the perpetrator “committed the offense with bias due to the victim’s or the group’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute the court chooses to consider.”
Without a law distinctly protecting citizens from race-based violence, our General Assembly spent much of last session trying to block American history from being taught in public schools under the guise of protecting students from Critical Race Theory – something that isn’t even taught in K-12 schools.
Fortunately, House Bill 1134 failed to pass through the Senate. However, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Bill 1369 – which eliminates the permit requirement to own a handgun – into law. Despite pushback from Indiana State Police, the law is set to take effect next month.
With an average of 23 school shootings per year in America, the Indiana state legislature is worried about teachers’ lesson plans while simultaneously easing restrictions on firearms? If we truly cared about protecting our children – all of our children – we would do everything in our power to pass commonsense gun reform and to ensure our history is being taught properly to prevent the atrocities of our past from ever happening again.
Unfortunately, we are failing to act. In order to protect our most vulnerable citizens, I’m calling on the Indiana General Assembly to pass a comprehensive hate crimes law that explicitly lays out harsher penalties for those who commit violence targeting people specifically for their race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or religion. With racist violence on the rise in our state and around the nation, the Indiana legislature has an obligation to our citizens to loudly declare that hate has no home here, and follow through with adequate sentencing when someone commits an act of hate.
Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) is the Democratic Party Floor Leader in the Indiana House of Representatives. She has served in the State Legislature since 2008.