At least 58 people were killed and more than 500 were injured when a gunman opened fire on a densely packed crowd on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday.
The incident is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. But authorities were quick to point out that they were not labelling the incident an act of terrorism.
“We do not know what his belief system was at this time,” Joseph Lombardo, the sheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said Monday of the gunman, identified by the police as a 64-year-old Nevada man. “Right now we believe it is a sole actor, a lone-wolf-type actor, and we have the place under control.”
Despite the unprecedented number of casualties, the incident doesn’t qualify as terrorism under federal law, which defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
In other words, without any knowledge of an attacker’s motivations, authorities are unable to officially call something an act of terrorism.
“We have the tendency to label anything we abhor as terrorism,” Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism who serves as Georgetown University’s director of security studies, told Business Insider. “But the fact is, even if it may cause terror and generate profound fear and anxiety, it’s the political motive that is salient in determining whether it’s an act of terrorism.”
At a press conference on Monday, the FBI special agent Aaron Rouse said his agency had discovered “no connection” between the gunman and international terrorist groups.
The federal definition of terrorism, however, seems to differ with a Nevada statute that defines the term more broadly. The state law defines terrorism as “any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.”
Prematurely labelling an incident terrorism can have “enormous legal and operational ramifications,” Hoffman told Business Insider. But the label can change, he said, as investigators uncover more details about an attacker’s history and potential clues into the person’s political ideology.
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