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How a potential mass shooter put Vermont on a path to redefining "domestic terrorism"

Legislators in Vermont are taking the most far-reaching and unusual approach of any other state.

Legislators in Vermont are proposing a far-reaching and unusual solution for mass shootings that would legally define such attacks as domestic terrorism — regardless of the shooter's ideological motivation.

The state's domestic terrorism bill, which passed the House Thursday and will now head back to the Senate for a vote, followed the arrest of 18-year-old Jack Sawyer, who kept a journal detailing his plans to shoot up his old high school. Sawyer’s actions ultimately proved insufficient to meet Vermont’s unusually high evidentiary bar for attempt charges. Prosecutors dropped the most serious allegations against him, and Sawyer pleaded not guilty to the rest.


But the prospect of Sawyer’s release terrified administrators at Fair Haven Union High School, who installed more than $100,000 in new security measures. It also spurred state Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat, to introduce the bill defining all mass violence or attempted mass violence as terrorism as a blanket rule.

“When students tell me that they feel like they’re sitting ducks in their classroom, that’s a form of terror,” Sears told VICE News. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of some political bent.”

But there are experts in counterterrorism and civil liberties who believe that approach will create more problems than it solves.

For one thing, they point out, Sears’s bill isn’t limited to school shootings — it applies to anyone who targets multiple people with potentially fatal violence.

That gives law enforcement huge discretion to decide who they use the law against, warns Michael German, a research fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a former FBI agent who focused on domestic terrorism and neo-Nazi and other armed far-right groups.

German says that giving the authorities such a broad power to call people terrorists and prosecute them as such opens the door for them to use the statute excessively against people they’re already predisposed to suspect — beginning with Muslim Americans and other persecuted minorities.

“The last thing you would want to do is take one horrible case and pass a broad law that creates more horrible problems in the future,” German said.

This segment originally aired May 3, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.