Congress recently passed a bill that made it a federal crime to lynch someone. The bill, which was largely symbolic given the fact that existing law already covered lynching, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 410 to 4.
The vote caused outrage, particularly among liberals, for the fact that it was not unanimous.
That outrage is misplaced. Here's why.
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is Empty
The bill, HR 35, was named the Emmett Till Antilynching Act after the victim of a heinous offense in 1955 Mississippi. It amends 18 U.S.C. § 249, a federal hate crimes law, by adding a provision that explicitly covers lynching. The Act forbids “Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully, acting as part of any collection of people, assembled for the purpose and with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person, causes death to any person.”
Most of this kind of conduct, though, was already covered and outlawed by 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1), which forbids “willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person… because of the[ir] actual or perceived race.”
Why the Four Representatives Voted Against HR 35
Media coverage of what is being called a “historic vote” has been quick to criticize the four members of Congress – all of them Republican – for not signing the bill. However, the media stops short of explaining why they voted against it.
Two Representatives Thought HR 35 Infringes on States' Rights
Two of the four, Ted Yoho (R-Fla) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky), didn't like how it extended the reach of federal law enforcement. According to them, hate crimes should be handled at the state level under the concept of the separation of powers.
Justin Amash: Disturbing Punishments for Conspiracy Offenses
Justin Amash (I-Mich), the libertarian representative who changed from the Republican Party a few years ago, voted against HR 35 because of what he saw as a disturbing expansion of conspiracy crimes in the bill.
One of the key (and only) differences between the current hate crimes law, 18 U.S.C. § 249, and the amendments offered by HR 35 were who could face prosecution. Under existing law, only those who willfully caused bodily injury could be prosecuted for a hate crime. Under the Emmett Till Act, anyone “acting as part of any collection of people” could be prosecuted.
Even if these bystanders or co-conspirators were not actively participating, they could still face a life sentence in jail or even the death penalty. That disturbed Rep. Amash enough to vote against the bill.
Louie Gohmert: Penalties Aren't Tough Enough
On the other side was Louie Gohmert (R-Tex). He voted against HR 35 because he didn't like how the penalties for “anyone who assembles with the intention of lynching” had been dropped over months of debate in the House. He had liked an earlier version that had included a provision that carried higher penalties for these conspirators.