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Senate Judiciary Committee grills FBI director on violent crime

Wray describes efforts to contain the flow of illegal guns and address domestic extremism

Wray testifies Thursday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
Wray testifies Thursday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Americans face increasing threats from domestic terrorism and violent crime, as he faced questions Thursday about the Biden administration’s priorities and efforts to stop further violence.

During a wide-ranging hearing, members pressed Wray on FBI efforts to contain the flow of illegal guns and address mass shootings, as well as whether the agency has bowed to the political whims of the Biden administration. Wray argued the agency has done its best to address a teetering status quo.

“The range of criminal and national security threats that we face as a nation has never been greater or more diverse, and the demands and expectations on the FBI have never been higher,” Wray said.

Wray also said the agency could use more funds on everything from gun background checks to efforts to counter Chinese espionage. He also acknowledged some of the agency’s shortcomings in addressing major threats, such as its inability to predict the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

Heading into the midterm elections, Democrats have argued for more action on gun control bills, which includes a bill to create a new assault weapon ban that the House passed last month. Several members of the committee, including Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, pressed Wray on the availability of such weapons, and she criticized him for answering that he could not comment on specific legislative ideas.

“It would be great, frankly, if we had law enforcement officials who actually came forward and were not as reticent as all that, because our nation is awash in guns,” Hirono said.

However, Wray said such rifles have been used in attacks on law enforcement officers, and he spotlighted an attack using a modified gun on FBI agents last week.

During questioning from Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Wray also said the agency needs more resources to implement recent changes to federal gun background checks.

The recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act requires federal authorities to notify local law enforcement of a failed background check, and the recent gun violence bill requires more intense background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21.

Wray said that in recent years, the FBI has had to process a record number of background checks, a number he sees increasing.

“We have surged resources to try to keep up with the volume and the demand. But we will need more,” to hire more staff and upgrade aging computer infrastructure, Wray said.

Committee ranking member Sen. Charles E. Grassley said the FBI has not done enough to stem the increase in violent crime. The Iowa Republican said the agency opened politically motivated investigations into parents who protested local school board decisions in the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Justice Department and the FBI must also make violent crime a top priority. However, instead of doing so, it seems like the Biden Justice Department and FBI have focused on intimidating parents who are concerned about how schools treat their children,” Grassley said.

Several Republicans also questioned the agency’s political leanings. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Wray on FBI guidance about extremist groups that included warnings about the Gadsden Flag, Betsy Ross flag and other historical symbols.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Wray about efforts to address abortion rights groups that have “actively” targeted anti-abortion churches and crisis pregnancy centers in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that overturned a constitutional right to an abortion. Since that decision came down, Republicans have argued the Biden administration has not done enough to respond to vandalism and other attacks on those groups.

Wray said the agency has opened “a number” of investigations related to violence around abortion, but did not provide much more information.

Members on both sides of the aisle pressed Wray on his efforts to address politically and racially motivated violence more broadly, an issue he acknowledged has gotten worse.

“I feel like every day I’m getting briefed on somebody’s throwing a Molotov cocktail at someone, for some issue. It’s crazy,” Wray said.

Wray said the agency is looking at better coordination with other law enforcement agencies to clamp down on extremism when it crosses the line from protected First Amendment speech to violence.

“I don’t care what side of the issue you’re on. I don’t care who you’re upset with or what you’re upset about, on an abortion or anything else. You don’t get to use violence, or threats of violence, to act on it, and we’re going to go after that conduct aggressively,” Wray said.

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