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It's been 40 years since Congress passed a federal law against hate crimes. Today, President Obama signs a new bill that updates that law. For the first time, it gives federal protection to people who are attacked because they are gay, transgender or disabled.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: As a lobbyist with the gay and lesbian group Human Rights Campaign, David Stacy fought hard for this bill. So it might seem odd that he does not expect many more people to be charged with federal hate crimes once the bill becomes law.

Mr. DAVID STACY (Human Rights Campaign): Are there going to be a huge number of prosecutions by the federal government, by the Justice Department under this statute? No.

SHAPIRO: State and local officials have always led the majority of hate crime prosecutions. The offenses are the kinds of assaults and muggings that local officials prosecute every day but with different motivations. And people who oppose hate crime laws say the federal government should have left it that way. But this new law also lets the Justice Department help with local prosecutions by providing federal investigators, forensics and money.

Robert Raben worked at the Justice Department when the Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay. It was 1998 and Raben remembers sitting in a conference room with the attorney general, the Wyoming sheriff, and Matthew Shepherd's parents.

Mr. ROBERT RABEN (Former U.S. Justice Department Official): I recall, amidst the tears and the affection and hugs for Matthew Shepard's parents, was the much more analytical and hard and kind of eye-glazing conversation about how to get resources to this poor sheriff.

SHAPIRO: Hate crimes cases get expensive, especially when protesters and the national media descend on a small town. The sheriff in Wyoming nearly went bankrupt prosecuting the Matthew Shepard case. This new law would let the federal government step in. For Mara Keisling, one of the most important parts of this bill is symbolic.

Ms. MARA KEISLING (National Center for Transgender Equality): It's the first time the transgender people will be in federal code in a positive way.

SHAPIRO: Keisling directs the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Ms. KEISLING: And that's a really important historical moment for the country, certainly for transgender people, but really also for the country.

SHAPIRO: Keisling says the transgender community documents an average of one murder a month. Government statistics don't reflect those numbers. And that's another thing that may change with this bill. The law expands the FBI's ability to track hate crimes.

Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League chairs a federal hate crimes coalition in Washington. He says in the short term this law may lead to a rise in the number of reported hate crimes. Here's his reasoning.

Mr. MICHAEL LIEBERMAN (Anti-Defamation League): If you're an individual who's been the victim of a crime, why would you bother to report that you'd been the victim of a hate crime unless you thought that law enforcement officials were going to take it seriously? So the fact is that after an effective hate crime law has been passed, the numbers actually may go up. And that may be a very good thing because it's a much more accurate reflection of the national problem.

SHAPIRO: The bill includes provisions to train state and local law enforcement officials about hate crimes. And it also protects people with disabilities for the first time. While disability and gay rights groups are happy to see the symbolic statement of this bill, government officials are ready to put the law to use.

Mr. TOM PEREZ (Department of Justice): We have a lot of equal-opportunity bigots across the United States.

SHAPIRO: Tom Perez leads the Justice Department's civil rights division. He recently spoke with WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Mr. PEREZ: This bill was first introduced in 1996, and I actually had the privilege of working for Senator Kennedy at the time when the bill was being drafted, and so it has been a 13-year marathon.

SHAPIRO: Both Perez and Attorney General Eric Holder used to work in the criminal section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. That's the part of the department that prosecutes hate crimes. So as one Justice official put it, this law is going to be used extensively.

For the gay and lesbian advocacy group Lambda Legal, the opposite would also be good. Kevin Cathcart is the group's executive director.

Mr. KEVIN CATHCART (Lambda Legal): I don't have a goal for this law to be used over and over again many times every year. My goal or ideal would be for anti-gay violence to taper off and disappear.

SHAPIRO: President Obama plans to sign the bill in the White House Rose Garden later today.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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