The massacre in Orlando began the usual rounds of gun apologetics this week. Judging by chatter on social media and the gas-baggery of America’s pundit class, a lot of folks are straining mightily to reduce the rampage to a single defining component, preferably one that distracts attention from the AR-15-style assault rifle Omar Mateen used in his rampage. (Before gun purists object, I’m just gonna say that any gun designed from the ground up to kill people and that can fire 24 rounds in 9 seconds, as Mateen did, qualifies in my mind as an assault rifle.)
Though there has been no evidence yet produced to suggest Mateen was anything more than a lone wolf, psychically poisoned in ways few of us will ever understand, Islamist extremism has been frequently, even hysterically cited as the driving motivation for his horrendous act. In doing so some seen determined to downplay Mateen’s murderous hostility to LGBT people. Indeed among commentators who issued statements of general regret, urging prayers and deploring violence, many declined to note the specificity of his target, as if the sexual orientation of his victims had been an incidental, not essential part of the shooter’s homicidal calculus. (Can’t we just say #alllivesmatter, not #LGBTlivesmatter? No, we can’t.)
Other proponents of gun freedom once again cited the nation’s mental health crisis as the true problem, not Mateen’s easy access to military grade weapons. Mateen legally purchased the Sig Sauer MCX, which is similar to an AR-15 semi-automatic, and a Glock 17-round handgun just days before his rampage. (He apparently did not convert the weapon to fully automatic before employing it to such devastating effect, but you can find out how to do so on YouTube. You will need a pair of pliers, a paper clip and an AR-15 of course. Safety note: Don’t try it without an AR-15.)
It is exasperating to have to refute these arguments after each instance of above-average bloodletting (compared to the steady trudge of gun mayhem in places like Chicago, which apparently STILL does not warrant immediate attention as a national emergency), but here goes:
• Yes, the United States has a problem with effective response and treatment of mental illness
• Yes, it seems likely that some degree of Islamist extremism played some part in the shooter’s twisted and complex motivation (though nothing to indicate that Mateen was an actual puppet to a particular group or extremist ideology)
• Do we have a home-grown religion- and ideology- (pick your brand) based terrorism problem to deal with? We sure do!
• No, it is not the PC coddling of U.S. identity politics to acknowledge the simple fact this shooter picked a target—a gay nightclub—as an expression of his homophobic rage, and, yes, like other religions, Islam needs to address an inherent quasi-spiritual justification for discrimination and violence against non-heterosexual folks.
But none of these acknowledgements somehow relieves the nation of the obligation to confront its gun addiction. Whether you wish to ignore the military lineage of weapons like Mateen’s Sig Sauer—or the more popular AR-15 it replicates—and redefine them as a hunting weapon; whether you want to argue—erroneously in my opinion—that the second amendment barricades any regulation of gun ownership; whether you believe that gun violence fundamentally is a reflection of a deep a spiritual hole in the nation’s heart or that Islamist extremism is the more significant threat here, we are still left with the problem of 300+ million guns and mass-incident and daily deaths from guns that are far in excess of any OECD peer state. That reality begs a response.
If the gun-owning community does not begin to join the civil dialogue on gun violence with sincere and practical suggestions toward reducing and, perhaps, even ending gun violence, they risk being left out of the process toward meaningful solutions. That means repeating a loud “no” for everything suggested—including even tracking and studying gun violence as the public health menace it is—is no longer acceptable. That means suggesting that the answer to rampant gun violence is for more people to carry guns is a non-starter. Most of us want to live in a civilized, non-heat packing society, not in a Glock-infused state of nature, and if it makes any difference study after study after study confirms that harboring a gun makes you less safe from harm, not more.
We will never live in a society free of mental illness, and we seem doomed to struggle with religious fanaticism of all stripes from time to time. Those problems won’t go away. They are matters of the heart and head that can never be completely fixed, but gun violence is something that can be practically addressed. Other OECD states have already done so.
A lot of folks want to keep guns; let’s figure out how to keep them safely, in your homes and off city streets. The deaths in Orlando properly shock, but it should also be shocking that in 2015 more people died at the hands of toddlers who had discovered their parents’ weapons than were killed by terrorists (sadly, mostly the toddlers themselves). We should be outraged that the vast majority of guns used in crimes in our cities began their functional lives as legally acquired weapons before trickling down to the criminal market through private sales (which is why draining the reservoir of U.S. guns and tightening regulations for private sales is essential). Gun locks, gun safety instruction and gun liability insurance should be prerequisites to gun ownership. This is not unconstitutional; it’s common sense.
The NRA considers the persistent death toll from gun violence, whether through mass death events like Orlando or the quotidian mayhem of gang or other criminal violence, as acceptable losses to preserve Second Amendment freedoms. The rest of us who don’t think those deaths are acceptable have to remain in the fight to reduce gun violence. Fortunately that includes the majority of NRA members who are not opposed to stronger gun control measures and who could conceivably be dislodged from the monolithic positions of the NRA elite to join in a more fruitful, practical discussion on gun laws.
It is exhausting and exasperating to have to keep returning to this problem. But it is the least we owe—in remorse and sorrow—to the young people gunned down on Sunday in Orlando, the innocent children of Sandy Hook school and the scores of others in recent years who have had lives that should have been full of beauty and wonder and happiness senselessly, shamefully cut short.