After swatting incidents, lawmakers consider new penalties

Heavily armed police units have been dispatched to the homes of dozens of elected officials this year.
A Baltimore police cruiser is seen parked on a street, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

State lawmakers are considering increasing penalties for false reporting of a crime after dozens of elected officials have become victims of so-called “swatting” calls in just the first few weeks of the new year.

In states across the nation, heavily armed police units have been dispatched to the homes of those elected officials, after hoax callers gave authorities their addresses claiming to have shot someone or committed crimes.

The calls have come across party lines, particularly when a public official has been in the news. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R) was ordered out of his home at gunpoint last week, after a caller claimed someone had shot his wife at Ashcroft’s address. Maine Secretary of State Sheena Bellows was swatted days after she ruled that former President Donald Trump could not be included on the ballot in her state.

Over the holidays, at least three members of Congress — U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.) and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) — said they had been swatted. So were Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D), Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones (R) and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R).

In Ohio, state Rep. Kevin Miller (R) and Sen. Andrew Brenner (R) were the targets of swatting calls last month — after they introduced legislation that would have made the crime of swatting a felony.

“I saw several cruisers, sheriff’s deputies cruisers, coming and stopping. At that point, I thought, something is not good here, what in the world is going on?” Miller told WBNS News in Columbus.

At least nine states — California, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin — have laws on the books that make swatting some form of punishable offense.

Most of those laws impose increasing penalties if a swatting incident leads to a serious injury or death for the victim. Though rare, swatting incidents have led to instances in which a victim has been shot by police.

In Missouri, where state law makes swatting a Class B misdemeanor, Ashcroft’s brush with danger has pushed legislators to act. Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden (R) — who is running to replace Ashcroft this year — said he would introduce legislation to increase those penalties.

“Whatever the penalty is right now, which I think is relatively insignificant relative to the crime, we’re going to enhance that penalty, hopefully, and try to figure out a way to deter folks from thinking that this is acceptable in any way, shape or form,” Rowden told KMIZ TV.

Lawmakers in Georgia, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia have also introduced legislation in the past several months to make swatting a crime.

Swatting incidents are by no means limited to elected officials: School districts and universities have reported an increased number of swatting calls in recent years. Last week, hundreds of teachers and administrators at Washington, D.C., public schools received anonymous emails conveying bomb threats.

“With these terror calls, it’s becoming open season on spreading fear, stress, anxiety and depression throughout our vulnerable student bodies as well as staff and their families,” New York Sen. Jim Tedisco (R) said as he introduced legislation to make swatting a crime. He called the hoaxes “another form of terrorism.”

The problem has become so acute that the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year created a federal database to track swatting calls, and to facilitate information sharing between law enforcement agencies.

There is no federal law against swatting. Several bills creating a new crime of swatting have been introduced, most recently by U.S. Rep. David Kustoff (R) in 2023.

In comments last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said violent crime rates were falling — but that threats of violence against public officials was on the rise.

“At the same time that we are seeing an encouraging downward trend in violent crime, we are also witnessing a deeply disturbing spike in threats against those who serve the public,” Garland said.