ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The investigation into the Las Vegas shooting is in the early stages, and already there's a debate over whether to call this crime an act of domestic terrorism. We're going to take a moment now to look at what is and isn't defined as terrorism. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Hiya.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, who's calling what happened in Las Vegas domestic terrorism, and who isn't?
MYRE: Well, the president - he called it an act of pure evil. Law enforcement in the Las Vegas area - they say they still don't know the motive behind the attack. However, there are some members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, including the Democratic National Committee, who have tweeted out and said that this is terror or domestic terrorism.
SIEGEL: And what accounts for the difference?
MYRE: Well, you know, terrorism is not about the level of violence or how many people are killed. It's the motivation. And so far, we don't know what the shooter, Stephen Paddock, had in mind, whether this was personal or political. That's still under investigation. But then there's this very important distinction when we get to federal law because terrorism is defined as acting on the behalf of a foreign terror group.
Now, the State Department has a list of about 60 groups, many of them well-known - the Islamic State, al-Qaida. However, there's no actual criminal charge in the U.S. for domestic terrorism. So if you're acting alone or even on behalf of a U.S. group, it's not really considered terrorism.
SIEGEL: So there's no formal criminal charge for that. But doesn't it instill terror in people just the same?
MYRE: Oh, absolutely. We've been talking about exactly the same act, but it just - it depends whether or not you're acting on behalf of a illegal, foreign terror group. And in fact this is really the third case in the past several months where we've had a white male involved in a case where this debate has come up about domestic terrorism. There was Charlottesville back in August where the white nationalists were rallying and a suspect allegedly - he drove a car and killed a woman. But he's been charged with murder, not terrorism.
In Alexandria, we had the shooting at the congressional Republicans practicing baseball. The attacker was killed there. We could go back and back all the way back to Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people with a bomb. It was not - he was not charged with terrorism.
SIEGEL: Is this mere semantics? Or why does it matter what we call it?
MYRE: Well, a lot of prosecutors and law enforcement people say it doesn't really matter. They say they have plenty of tools, whether it's murder charges or hate crimes or something like that, where they can do what they need to do. Now, the Patriot Act does actually define domestic terrorism, and this does give prosecutors expanded powers to carry out investigations. But again, there's no criminal charge that goes with it.
And there are some who say we are overlooking the threat of domestic terror because of the focus on foreign Islamic groups. But there's not really a big push to get a domestic terrorism charge, and a lot of people say this would put the government in the position of defining ideology and religion and defining certain groups that are not considered legitimate.
SIEGEL: And that could run up against problems with the First Amendment.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks.
MYRE: Thank you.