It was unsurprising, perhaps inevitable, that much of the commentary about the tragedy in Orlando would pass through a prism of preexisting political positions. Republicans tended to view it as a result of the ineffectiveness of the Administration’s responses to ISIS, while Democrats associated it with Republican unwillingness to support any form of gun control legislation. Having our own distinctive prism, we are inclined to believe that there is something to the assertions of each, but perhaps not as much as either appears to claim.
To begin with, the Orlando shooting was a bizarre event, a seeming composite of terrorism and hate crime. Yet the shooter, Omar Mateen, was not a typical perpetrator of either. Mateen had been investigated by the FBI but removed from its watch list. And his unusual persona was summed up in Politico:
Based on the accounts of his aquaintances and family, Mateen also appears to have been a deeply conflicted and possibly self-loathing homophobe who drank heavily, took drugs, dated men, frequented the same club he later attacked, Pulse, and used a gay dating app—not the sort of behavior one would expect of a faithful soldier of Islam.
Yes, Mateen was a terrorist—but what kind of terrorist? He had no known ISIS or Al Qaeda connection; he wasn’t getting operating orders from abroad; he hadn’t gone overseas to be trained; he followed no predictable course of radicalization.
In terms of gun control, it is not clear what kind of politically plausible gun control might have been required to keep weapons out of his hands.
ISIS and Radical Islam. The shooter proclaimed that he was acting in the name of ISIS, and we share the concern of many that President Obama has not waged a sufficiently aggressive campaign against ISIS and, more broadly, radical Islam. While some military progress has been made against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it is a very long way from being destroyed and Obama’s frequent claims of progress, and attempts to minimize the threat posed by ISIS have a hollow ring. (For a collection of such pronouncements, see Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. “After Orlando, Obama continues to be in denial about terrorism.”)
Comments from the head of the CIA, John Brennan, provided a more realistic picture:
Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach. The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly.
Moreover, the group’s foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria. In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.
Critics of Obama have not been particularly clear what specific actions against ISIS would soon diminish the threat of terrorism it poses. One step, they suggest, is for the President to acknowledge that there is a threat from “radical Islam,” a term that the President still declines to employ. We are inclined to agree with the critics. Although simply using the term would not produce any immediate change, greater clarity of vision and purpose are always helpful. We also note that speaking of radical Islam is not, as Obama would have it, merely a partisan talking point, but one that has been endorsed by such calm observers as David Gergen and David Brooks.
Obama’s rational for refusing to speak of radical Islam is that he does not wish to tar all of Islam by doing so. While that may be a legitimate concern, we think he goes too far in denying that there is a religious belief at the heart of ISIS: “These are not religious warriors, they are thugs and they are thieves.” Thugs and thieves they may be, but they are more: mere thugs and thieves, for example, could not recruit and deploy suicide bombers. As David Brooks remarked on the PBS Newshour:
I have a quote in my column today by Peter Bergen, who is a friend of — and he said, saying Islamic terror is not related to Islam is like saying the Crusades are not related to Christianity and their view of Jerusalem.
It is sort of a radical politicized version of a faith ideology. And for the president not to say that, A, is not the truth, but, B, it reeks of a political correctness which ends up driving people to Donald Trump.
And so I think he should use the term. Every other world leader uses the term. We can all distinguish between the few terrorists who are radical Islamists between — and the tens and hundreds of millions of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding, normal human beings.
If “radical Islam” continues to be a troublesome term, perhaps there is some alternative that would recognize the religious element of ISIS, be less politically divisive, and might even be adopted by the mainstream Muslim community. Such a term might be something on the order of “Corrupters of Islam” or “Perverters of Islam.” It is something, we suggest, that at least bears thinking about.
Gun Control. The Orlando shooting spawned four proposed gun control measures in the Senate, two introduced by Democrats and two by Republicans, and each was predictably defeated by voting along partisan lines. (The two Republican bills gained a majority but fell short of the 60 vote standard agreed upon to avoid a filibuster.) Ironically, however, it is doubtful that, if any of the measures had been in effect, they would have prevented the Orlando shooting.
- Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill would have allowed the Attorney General to ban the purchase of guns by anyone on the FBI’s various watch lists. As previously noted, however, Mateen was no longer on such a watch list.
- Republican Senator John Cornyn’s bill applied to anyone who had been subject of a terrorist investigation within five years, but provided only a 72 hour delay within which the government would have to persuade a court that there was probable cause to believe that the purchaser has committed or will commit an act of terrorism. It is doubtful that the government could have met that burden with respect to Mateen.
- Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy proposed expanding the background check requirement to include gun shows and on line purchases. Mateen purchased is weapons at a federally licensed gun store that presumably made the required background check.
- Republican Senator Chuck Grassley proposed a bill designed to improve the present background check by better defining “mentally incompetent.” Again, it is unlikely that this change would have made any difference in Mateen’s case.
It is not only unlikely that any of the measures would have deterred Mateen, but it is questionable how effective they would have been in preventing future “Orlandos” or “San Bernardinos.” Nevertheless, were we in the Senate, we would have supported all four measures, as in fact Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte did. While some Republicans doubtless had sincere objections to the Feinstein and Murphy bills, the overwhelming nature of their opposition appears to reflect the party’s unseemly fealty to the NRA. On the other hand, the uniform Democratic refusal to support the Cornyn and Grassley measures suggests that, apart from genuine concerns on the merits of those bills, Democrats were unwilling to dilute their political position on gun control by allowing Republicans any credit of having done something positive.
Notably, none of the Senate Democrats even proposed, as Hillary Clinton had, a ban on “assault weapons,” presumably similar to the law that was in effect from 1994 through 2004. Such weapons, critics point out, are not assault weapons in the military sense, in that they are only semi-automatic, firing one bullet per trigger pull. Critics, such as The Wall Street Journal, also cite data suggesting that the 1994 ban did not reduce gun homicides. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that a ban would not, at a minimum, make it more difficult for prospective mass killers such as Mateen to obtain those weapons and to kill so many people so easily
In October 2015, in Blog No. 81, we addressed the question “What to Do About Guns and Shootings,” and urged a comprehensive system of licensing and registration. We supported a ban on assault weapons or, in the alternative, highly stringent licensing requirements. We held no illusions then, and hold none now, as to the political difficulty in gaining passage of either a ban or stringent regulation of assault weapons. They are goals worth keeping in mind, but in the meantime, we should remain alert to other possibilities of reform. Indeed, there is one such possibility that many experts believe would be more effective than an assault weapons ban: limitation of high-capacity magazines. See, The Trace, “Bans on High-Capacity Magazines, Not Assault Rifles, Most Likely to Limit Mass Shooting Carnage.” Omar Mateen had a magazine with 30 rounds and perhaps even the NRA would have some difficulty in explaining why a magazine of that capacity is needed for hunting or target shooting. In any case, we believe that regulation of magazines is an avenue that deserves more attention than it has received from either Republicans or Democrats.
Will the Republicans pay a price for their stubborn resistance to gun control? Perhaps, but that is a question difficult to answer with any confidence. There are many issues competing for attention in any election and, while polls indicate that a strong majority of the public favors gun control, those who oppose it generally feel more passionate about the issue. The current campaign, and the November election, may or may not prove to be instructive.