Omar Mateen entered Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida at approximately 2:00am on June 12, 2016 and began shooting. He took hostages in the club after police arrived and engaged in a gunfight with him. A total of 49 people were killed by Mateen and 53 others were injured before Mateen turned the gun on himself. The attack was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in United States history.
The natural reaction for many following this attack was horror, followed shortly thereafter by renewed indignation towards Muslims, or at least “the terrorists”. There has also been the inevitable chorus rising once again for stricter gun control laws. This call, inevitably, has been followed by those who denounce the man but not the weapon, many relying on some form of the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. This is true, technically speaking. Without the impetus and means by which to wield the gun provided by a person the gun has no function, only form. It is a piece of metal. Therefore, this argument is not fallacious as many claim. But it is incomplete. There is no conclusion. As a result it cannot properly constitute an argument but rather a statement comprised of two assertions. It would seem as though the logical deduction from this statement given context is that what must be better or more strictly regulated is people, not guns. So let’s proceed from there.
Two months before the attack in Orlando, Omar Mateen legally purchased a SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 handgun. These firearms were later used in the attack. As noted above two general conclusions have resulted from this attack: 1) if the United States government did a better job combatting Muslim terrorism such an attack never would have happened, or 2) if the United States government did a better job controlling guns such an attack never would have happened. The problem becomes that these two conclusions can both be correct or both be incorrect. They are not mutually exclusive. The person cannot be separated from the gun. Omar Mateen happened to be a Muslim American and who had guns. The majority of guns are owned by whites. White Americans have been radicalized to Islamic extremism. The majority of mass shootings in the United States have been perpetrated by White Americans.
The only way to prevent mass shootings is to take away all guns. This isn’t going to happen. Very few people actually want this to happen. According to a Gallup poll from December 2015, 55% of Americans surveyed favored stricter gun control laws. The most recent data on gun control from Pew Research Center states that 85% of Americans favor expanded background checks, 79% favor laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns, 70% support the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales, while 57% support a ban on assault-style weapons with partisanship playing a large role in less support for the last two measures. However, only a small percentage believe such laws would reduce the number of mass shootings. This may be related to the common refrain amongst those opposed to gun control that a legal ban or even simply a restriction on guns wouldn’t prevent criminals from getting guns. But how do the criminals get their guns? Omar Mateen’s guns were legal.
Many on both sides, gun control and gun rights, seem to be calling for “common sense” gun restrictions. The problem becomes that this sense is not so common. We just know that a ban on guns will not happen because 2nd Amendment! and ‘Murica! We can’t even agree on assault weapons. Opponents will point out that such weapons are unnecessary for home defense, sport shooting, even hunting and they were banned previously, while advocates can point to the fact that this “ban” wasn’t really a ban and a 2004 Department of Justice report which concluded that the law was largely ineffective at limiting access to functionally equivalent weapons.
So we’ll leave the guns alone for now, work on the people. To begin, banning all Muslims from entering the United States isn’t viable. There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, of which the vast majority have an unfavorable opinion of ISIS and other organizations representing Islamic extremism, according to Pew. An estimate from CNN places the number of individuals who are members of or who identify with these organizations at about 106,000. This would mean that while those Muslims who say violence in the name of Islam is at least sometimes justified is larger, only 0.00006625% of Muslims worldwide actively support and/or carry out such violence. Pew estimates there were about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States in 2015, or about 219 potential extremists. Compare this to numbers compiled by the New York Times which show 82 people have been accused by American officials of trying to help the Islamic State. 32 (39%) expressed interest in carrying out an attack on American soil. 28 (34%) took steps to carry out an attack. 5 (6.1%) were in communication with a member of the Islamic State. 4 (4.9%) carried out attacks. None of these people actually received specific direction from the Islamic State abroad.
Not only is the percentage of Muslims worldwide actively supporting Islamic extremism minute, the percent of active supporters who would carry out their own attack is small. And they’re radicalized here. Omar Mateen was radicalized here. They carry out personal attacks in the name of Islam here. The threat is here.
The goal, therefore, must be to keep better track of the individuals here who may become radicalized here, right? To properly identify those who would carry out an attack and stop them. On June 16th following the Orlando shootings the House voted against curbing government spying powers, tilting towards national security and keeping Americans safe. The rejected amendment would have blocked the government from requiring companies to build backdoor entries into encrypted technology and also would have required federal authorities to obtain a warrant before searching through a giant collection of emails and phone calls from Americans. This would seem to be requisite continuation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act which gives the U.S. government access to not only phone records and emails but also collect information on personal medical history, personal finances, or even what books you read. But adequate implementation of an Orwellian reality requires people to sift through all this information as well as “boots on the ground” to follow up on leads, conduct human surveillance and to stop and arrest the bad guys.
One lesson from Omar Mateen is that this apparatus isn’t big enough. The FBI identified Mateen as a possible threat but didn’t have the manpower to track him in order to build a case against him. The FBI has stated it has more than 1,000 active probes related to the Islamic State. But one report stated that only 48 of these cases were under intense, 24-hour surveillance. And this is about the upper limit of the FBI’s resources. Only 5%. Increasing the ability of the government to stop the man would require many more resources and tacit approval of the federal government spying on its citizens. Of course in the name of national security.
This would seem antithetical to the very cause of those who oppose additional gun control, however. The 2nd Amendment has seemingly taken a very special place atop the Bill of Rights. The 2nd Amendment cannot be sullied by regulation. This concern regarding restrictions does not seem to apply to the other amendments in the Bill of Rights, many of which it is argued are restricted or even violated by the Patriot Act. If the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to guarantee and preserve individual liberties this would seemingly be contrary to that held dear by those who wish to continue to bear arms. If we must stop the man instead of the guns, the guns come at the expense of man.