Report: 2015 Was Deadliest Year For Domestic Extremism in Two Decades

San Bernardino
A memorial remains outside as workers return to work for the first time at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, on January 4. From Charleston to Chattanooga, and Colorado Springs to San Bernardino, 2015 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since 1995. Families of the victims of the San Bernardino shooting rampage have sued Facebook, Google and Twitter. Mike Blake/Reuters

At least 52 people in the United States were killed by domestic extremists in 2015, according to a report released Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism, making 2015 the deadliest year for this type of killing in two decades.

Though domestic extremists killed more people in 2015 than in the preceding two years combined, the dozens of deaths came at the hands of fewer parties, according to the report. The ADL linked each death to either white supremacists or anti-government, domestic Islamist or anti-abortion extremists, though not all of their crimes were ideologically motivated. In some instances, the report says, extremist groups will engage in gang-related violent activity.

White supremacists have been responsible for the greatest number of domestic extremist killings every year since 1995, according to the report. The ADL attributed 20 deaths in 2015 to white supremacists, nine of which occurred on June 17 when a gunman shot and killed nine congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof has been charged in the racially motivated murders.

Throughout the year, several individual incidents of crimes perpetrated by white supremacists occurred across the U.S. Though not explicitly mentioned in the report, the data includes a March incident in which six people were shot, with one dying, in Mesa, Arizona. And on July 23, an admirer of multiple right-wing extremist groups with neo-Nazi and white supremacist sympathies went on a shooting spree in a Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater during a showing of the comedy Trainwreck, killing three, including himself.

But unlike previous years, deaths at the hands of domestic Islamist extremists in 2015 were on the rise; 19 people were killed in 2015 by such extremists, according to the ADL. These deaths occurred in just two mass shootings: a July 16 attack in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in which Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez is charged with firing on two military installations, and the December 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, when a married couple opened fire at a Department of Public Health training event and holiday party.

Anti-government extremists were responsible for 10 deaths in 2015, according to the report. The ADL’s data includes David Crowley, considered a right-wing extremist filmmaker, who was found dead in his home with his wife and 5-year-old daughter in an apparent murder-suicide by gun last January. Roy Murray of Idaho, who has ties to an Eastern Washington militia group, is accused of killing his estranged wife’s mother, stepfather and son before burning down their home on May 26. Each was found on the property with numerous gunshot wounds. And on June 7, Augustine Bournes shot and killed his wife and three children, before setting fire to their home and fatally shooting himself.

Less than two weeks later, as mentioned in the report, a militia movement activist named James Faire allegedly ran over a couple with a pickup truck during a June 18 confrontation at a rural home in Washington state where he and a woman were reportedly squatting.

On November 27, an anti-abortion extremist gained national attention after he was charged with killing three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The last time the death toll for domestic extremism was higher was in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the center, says that 2015’s count of 52 deaths is conservative, as it takes time for extremist connections to emerge in some cases.

“Just in the last couple of weeks of December, between the time when we finalized the report and we publicly released it, there have been several more murders that we are currently investigating [as having] some sort of extremist connection,” he says.

2015 is also a stand-alone year in that more than half of the 52 deaths occurred in incidents involving multiple victims. Previous years mostly contained attacks involving a single victim, according to the ADL.

But 2015 also followed a familiar pattern. “The blunt fact is that, in the past 50 years, firearms in the hands of domestic extremists have killed far more Americans than have bombs, blades, chemical or biological weapons,” the report says. Of the 52 killed in 2015, all but four were killed by firearms, according to the report.  

As the ADL released its report on Tuesday, President Barack Obama unveiled a series of executive actions on gun control, aimed at expanding the background checks system for firearms in the face of congressional gridlock.

“This is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns,” Obama said, surrounded by victims of gun violence. “You pass a background check; you purchase a firearm.”

But the president continued to call for Congress to impose new measures, which could not be easily overturned by his successor, unlike executive actions.