FILE - U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, July 15, 2019.
FILE - U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, July 15, 2019.

WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday announced a new effort to prevent mass shootings through court-ordered counseling and supervision of potentially violent individuals.

The effort, announced in a memo to federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials, followed dozens of deadly mass shootings in the United States this year, including a massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and another just one day later in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine people were killed.

The FBI was given expanded powers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to investigate foreign terrorism threats. But it has at times struggled to track homegrown threats and was criticized for not doing more after receiving warnings about a gunman who was later responsible for the February 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Shooters' motivation

Lawmakers are considering whether new laws are needed to help investigate those who are motivated by white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other extreme ideologies that are protected by the U.S. Constitution's free-speech safeguards. 

Crosses sit in honor of those killed during the mass shooting, Oct. 6, 2017, in Las Vegas.
FILE - Crosses sit in honor of those killed during the mass shooting, Oct. 6, 2017, in Las Vegas.

Others, such as the gunman who killed 59 people in Las Vegas in October 2017, do not appear to have any ideological affiliation. 

Barr said a training conference at FBI headquarters in December would consider new ideas to face threats, such as enlisting psychologists and community groups.

In one successful case, Barr said, the FBI worked with parents and social service workers to get court-ordered supervision and mental health treatment for a young person who was the subject of a threat investigation. 

Senators' legislation

Barr's announcement came on the same day that a handful of Republican senators led by Texas Republican John Cornyn unveiled proposed legislation that aims to prevent mass shootings through collaboration with online platforms, expanded mental health treatment, stepped-up investigations of unlicensed firearms dealers and greater use of the death penalty. 

Michael German, a former FBI agent now with the Brennan Center for Justice, said Barr's proposal risks encroaching on civil liberties and stigmatizing mental illness. 

"While studying gun violence and exploring all options to reduce it are important Justice Department functions, promoting simplistic but false profiles for law enforcement won't solve any problems and will only lead to abuse," he said in an email. 

FILE - People carry flowers during a tribute to the victims of a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 18, 2019.
FILE - People carry flowers during a tribute to the victims of a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 18, 2019.

Three hundred forty-one people have been killed in mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a group that tracks such incidents. That is a small fraction of the 30,000 to 40,000 people who have been killed by gun violence in recent years, according to the group. 

FBI data show that hate crimes that target victims based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity have risen from 5,850 reported incidents in 2015 to 7,175 in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available. 

The U.S. Homeland Security Department, created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, unveiled a strategy last month to better counter homegrown threats as well as those originating overseas singling out white supremacy in particular.

The FBI has already taken some steps toward potentially utilizing social media and earlier this year requested bids for a contractor to help detect national security threats by trawling through social media sites. 

The Justice Department's internal watchdog is reviewing the agency's efforts to identify homegrown terrorism threats.