Just as recent high-profile shootings in the United States have advanced the cause of gun control, advocates seeking to strengthen hate-crime laws hope momentum will build for reforms at the state and federal levels.
There are signs that this issue is gaining political traction. Vice President Al Gore has turned it into a theme for his presidential campaign. In July, the Senate passed a bipartisan measure that would expand federal hate-crime laws. The White House plans to push the bill when lawmakers return in September.
But if gun control has been an uphill struggle for its advocates, trying to expand hate-crime laws has been even more difficult. The issue involves far more subtleties and doesn't have the mass constituency that gun control has, analysts say.
At the state level, supporters of tougher legislation want to amend existing laws in two ways: expand the definition of hate-crime victims to include homosexuals, and increase the penalties for hate crimes.
Similarly, the Senate legislation also expands the definition to cover sexual orientation and disability. But it also broadens the reach of federal hate-crime laws.
Generally, "hate crime" refers to acts already considered criminal that are committed against a person because of the individual's membership in a particular group. Bigoted expressions or speech are not considered hate crimes, says Brian Levin, a criminologist at California State University in San Bernardino.
Since 1979, more than 40 states, as well as the federal government, have passed hate-crime laws, but recent state efforts to amend the laws "have stopped dead in their tracks," says Mr. Levin.
Opponents of expanded federal legislation argue that this is largely an issue for the states. They worry about creeping federalism. Those opposed to broader definitions of victims argue that gays, along with the other categories covered, are getting more rights than other crime victims.
And then there are fundamental questions about such laws in general: Do they deter hate crimes? Why give stiffer penalties to these crimes as opposed to other violent assaults?
Most crimes involve some degree of hate, say critics. "It's hard to distinguish between one form of hate and another," says GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush.
But advocates of enhanced hate-crime measures counter that many states don't have adequate laws - nine don't have any at all. New federal laws could cover this deficit.
Moreover, they see hate crimes as a more insidious offense than many other types of assault, requiring special protections and stiffer penalties. Studies by Levin and others show that hate crimes are more likely to involve excessive violence, multiple offenders, serial attacks, and risk of rioting.
Levin points out that, in certain circumstances, criminal law already distinguishes among similar crimes. Raping a child, for instance, is treated differently under the law than raping an adult.
Hate-crime laws are not designed to stop events such as this week's shooting in Los Angeles. If someone is going to ignore laws against murder, they wouldn't be discouraged by hate-crime penalties. But these laws can deter lesser hate crimes, says Levin, citing significant drops in such incidents in Boston and New Jersey, which vigorously enforce antihate laws.
Still, questions remain about how interested voters are in the issue. "I represent Jasper [where an African-American was dragged to death], and I haven't gotten but 25 calls for or against the hate crimes bill," says Drew Nixon, a GOP lawmaker who voted against the Texas measure.
In contrast, a bill two years ago that would have forced fishermen to put name tags on every trotline drew more than 4,000 calls. "This is not a big issue with the public," says Mr. Nixon.
*Staff writer Scott Baldauf in Texas contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society