March 18, 2021 12:35 PM EDT

The 21-year-old white man who police say went on a shooting spree at three Atlanta-area massage parlors on Tuesday was charged with eight counts of murder in the attacks, intensifying widespread fears and sorrow over the rise in anti-Asian violence in the country. Six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent.

The rampage has drawn swift nationwide condemnation, with many calling it a hate crime that fits into a pattern of rising attacks against Asian-Americans. When local law enforcement said the attack didn’t appear to be racially motivated, it triggered a massive response on social media and within the Atlanta community that police were overlooking the incident’s innate prejudice.

“We’ve received a number of calls about, ‘Is this a hate crime?’” Atlanta police chief Rodney Bryant told reporters Wednesday. He said the alleged attacker, Robert Aaron Long, told police that the attack wasn’t racially motivated, but suggested he had a “sex addiction” and appeared to want to eliminate what he saw as sources of temptation. While Bryant did not rule out the possibility of a hate crime, he said the force was “still early in this investigation, so we cannot make that determination at this moment.”

The shooter walked into three separate parlors that he reportedly frequented, intending to kill the Asian women that worked there. How, many wondered, could this not be deemed a hate crime?

The debate over what legally constitutes a hate crime—and the barriers to prosecuting them—stretches back decades. So does confusion about hate-crime laws by the American public. In order to charge an individual with a hate crime, law enforcement must be able to prove that an offense was specifically motivated by hate or bias. But authorities aren’t mind-readers; even if the victims all belong to a certain race, religion, sexual orientation or other protected class, prosecutors need to be able to present evidence of this bias in the attacker’s previous actions, words or affiliations.

This legal framework leaves significant gaps, especially when it comes to hate crimes against Asian-Americans, advocates say. The recent stabbing of an Asian man in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood drew large protests at the District Attorney’s office when it initially declined to prosecute the attack as a hate crime. (It later changed course). The assailant, a 23-year-old man from Yemen, reportedly told police he “didn’t like the way” the victim “looked at him.” But investigators said they had no evidence that the assailant had seen the victim’s face when he attacked him from behind.

Given these legal constraints, both reporting and prosecution rates of hate crimes are exceedingly low. According to a 2019 study from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, state attorneys referred hate-crime cases to the federal government for prosecution 2,000 times over the previous decade. Only 15% of those referrals led to prosecutions.

Three states—Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming—don’t have hate crimes laws at all. And 17 others have laws that don’t require data collection on such offenses. Indeed, only 14% of nearly 15,600 state and local police agencies involved in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which collects nationwide crime data, even report hate crimes to the federal government. Studies have shown that hate crimes tend to be underreported due to victims’ mistrust of police, or fear or reprisal.

If law-enforcement officials aren’t reporting racially motivated offenses, then they aren’t identifying, investigating or prosecuting them. Without this information, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) doesn’t have a comprehensive understanding of how many people are attacked, injured or killed by racially motivated extremist violence—or how any one incident fits into wider trends.

These attacks have an outsized impact. Hate crimes are not only perpetrated against an individual; they terrorize and intimidate entire communities, advocates say. The failure to track them more consistently and accurately means that at-risk communities may not receive the resources they need.

All of this adds up to very little action. Despite the fact that there are five federal hate-crime statutes on the books, the DOJ prosecutes only about 25 hate-crime defendants per year, says Michael German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. Yet crime victim surveys by the Justice Department suggest there are as many as 250,000 hate crimes committed in the U.S. annually.

“What communities targeted by hate crimes want isn’t necessarily more laws that police can ignore, but more law enforcement attention to the crimes targeting these communities,” German says. “The DOJ maintains a policy of deferring the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes to state and local law enforcement, despite the fact that state and local law enforcement don’t respond effectively.”

Some states have responded by expanding the language in their own laws beyond the FBI’s definition of a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” A handful of states have included the homeless, police and political affiliation on the hate crime statutes.

Georgia only enacted its own hate crime law last year, imposing additional penalties for crimes that are motivated by bias. The law provides sentencing guidelines if anyone is found guilty of intentionally targeting a victim for their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, or disability. The new law, which went into effect on Jan. 1 after being signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, also mandates the collection of data on hate-crime incidents in the state.

Nationally, 51 murders were classified as hate crimes in 2019, making it the deadliest year on record for such crimes. The grim tally, which more than doubled from 2018, included the shooting rampage at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people were killed after the suspect published a rambling manifesto online about a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Last year, hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 cities rose by 150%, with women twice as likely to be targeted, according to an analysis of police department statistics released earlier this month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Violent attacks and harassment toward Asian Americans sharply spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, with over 3,800 hate incidents across the U.S. since it began, according to data collected by nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. More than 35% of these incidents occurred at businesses, and women reported twice as many hate incidents as men.

In response, House Democrats last month renewed a push for a federal hate-crime tracking law. Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat who chairs the Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the current law, which dates back to 1990, “doesn’t have any teeth” because it relies on inconsistent, voluntary participation by local law enforcement. The proposed “No Hate Act” would provide grant funding for states and local law enforcement to improve their hate crime reporting.

Regardless of legal definitions, the reality is that the attacker targeted businesses with names like “Young’s Asian massage,” Chu said during a House Democratic Caucus press conference on Wednesday. “The fact that he went to that one, with that title gives you a clue to what he was thinking,” she said. “It’s clear that the individuals were targeted because they are amongst the most vulnerable in our country: immigrant, Asian women.”

Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com.

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