The Jacksonville Shooting

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Daniel Byman on his Critical Questions, The Jacksonville Shooting.

Audio file

On August 26, 2023, Ryan Christopher Palmeter walked into a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, and gunned down three Black customers. When officers responded to the shooting, Palmeter killed himself. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the shooting as an act of racially motivated violent extremism and as a hate crime.

As horrific as the violence was, it could have been worse. The shooter apparently originally intended to target the nearby Edward Waters University, whose students are predominantly Black, but alert students and campus security stopped him from entering.

Q1: What was the shooter’s motivation?

A1: Although the investigation is just beginning, the initial signs all indicate that Palmeter’s attack was racially motivated. His weapon, an AR-15, was adorned with a swastika. Law enforcement officers say the gunmen left manifestos behind that made his racism clear.

This mix of a “pseudocommando” type of operation and manifesto is common in the white supremacist world. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, and Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 in attacks on two mosques in New Zealand, also used this approach. In their eyes, this combination of shooting and media allows the shooters to maintain their self-image as warriors for the white race and to publicize their actions to fellow believers, joining a pantheon of others who act rather than simply mouth words.

Q2: Was the shooter tied to an organized group?

A2: So far, there is no indication that Palmeter was tied to an organized white supremacist group. This is not a surprise: although there are some white supremacist organizations, most of them are relatively weak and small, especially when compared with ethno-nationalist or jihadist terrorist organizations. The organized groups often have limited capacity and are well-monitored by law enforcement.

Rather, the bigger danger is from radicalized individuals. In the United States, almost all the major attacks, such as the 2022 Buffalo supermarket shooting that killed 10 Black patrons, the 2019 Walmart shooting that led to the deaths of 23 mostly Latino shoppers, and the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 worshippers, involved individuals with no formal ties to an organized group.

At the same time, however, these individuals are often part of broader networks. They follow radical social media sites, talk to other extremists online, share sound bites from media sources and political leaders that play to racial tension, and are otherwise part of a broader, hateful community. Shooters often grow in their racism after exposure to these networks, and it is this community that shooters seek to impress.

Q3: What is the current danger level from white supremacist terrorists?

A3: White supremacists remain one of the leading terrorist threats to Americans. According to data from the New America Foundation, since the 9/11 attacks, white supremacists and other right-wing terrorists have killed more Americans on U.S. soil than jihadists. In addition, their relative lethality has grown in recent years, while the jihadist attacks in the United States have tapered off, with the jihadist movement as a whole much weaker than in the past.

White supremacists also often have greater political impact and have more support from pockets of Americans. Much of what they champion—anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, virulent misogyny, and other causes—has echoes in the mainstream political debate. This stands in sharp contrast to jihadist terrorism, where the overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject their teachings and cooperate regularly with law enforcement.

Q4: How can the United States better counter the danger?

A4: There is no simple answer to how to stop white supremacist violence. Tight gun laws would prevent weapons like AR-15s from ending up in the hands of violent individuals like Palmeter, but progress on this front seems unlikely.

Many of the solutions come down to resourcing. The FBI and local police must have the time and personnel to go after radicals. Social media companies, which are currently cutting staff dedicated to keeping their platforms from spouting hate, should instead be redoubling efforts both to remove hateful content and to work with law enforcement when users post warnings of imminent violence.

One of the most important steps is one of the most difficult: countering the atmosphere of hate and polarization in U.S. politics. Violent white supremacists often see themselves as heroes because the broader discourse exaggerates dangers from immigration, Black crime, and other issues. Instead of playing on fears, political leaders and media figures need to repeatedly reject violence and the narratives on which it feeds. Unfortunately, as the country enters the 2024 election season, this problem may get worse rather than better.

Daniel Byman is a senior fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a professor at Georgetown University.

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Daniel Byman
Senior Fellow, Transnational Threats Project