Guns and more guns in America
America woke up stunned on Sunday morning to the news of a deadliest mass shooting in its history when a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando in the wee hours of Sunday, killing at least 50 people. Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are investigating this attack as an act of domestic terrorism. The perpetrator, identified as American-born Omar Saddiqui Mateen, was killed at the scene by a special police unit. Investigators said that Mateen called the police (911) 20 minutes into the attack to pledge his allegiance to the dreaded terrorist group, ISIS. Reports indicate that the shooter had previous run-ins with the FBI. Mateen was questioned twice in 2013 for comments he made at work about possible contacts with terrorists, and again in 2014 for his ties to an American suicide bomber, according to FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper. Both times he was let off due to lack of clear evidence. Despite his run-ins with the FBI, Mateen legally purchased two of the weapons used in the attack.
There are two clear narratives that have emerged since the shooting. Shortly after the shooter was revealed to be a Muslim with possible ties to ISIS, politicians from the far-right were not shy to point the finger at radical Islam. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism. I don't want congrats, I want toughness and vigilance. We must be smart!” On the other hand, US President Barack Obama once again pointed a finger at the lack of adequate gun control. “The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle,” Obama said. “This massacre is, therefore, a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.” Let’s examine both positions.
There has been no confirmation yet of whether the victims were murdered for being American or gay, or for both reasons. The dreaded terror group, ISIS, appears to have claimed responsibility for the attack. In a message published on the group’s semi-official news agency, Amaq, it described the shooter as a “soldier of the caliphate”. There is no real clarity yet on the relation between the shooter and ISIS. But reports indicate that he was viewed as a lone wolf attacker. In the aftermath of the horrific Paris and Brussels attack, ISIS had urged its sympathisers across Europe and the US to launch attacks on civilians there if they are unable to travel to the group’s self-declared caliphate.
Moreover, ISIS has a record of monstrous crimes and cruelties against gay people. Mateen’s father has told an American news channel that his son had become enraged by a gay couple kissing. “While it seems easy or possible to lump up Muslims into a monolith to pander to racist and xenophobic voters, the truth is most Muslims — like any other group of people — abhor violence,” according to a stirring column in Vox, a leading American news media website. “This is just a fact: Pew Research Center surveys have found that the great majority of Muslims around the world say that violence in the name of Islam is not justified. And it's worth remembering that the primary victims of terrorist groups like ISIS are other Muslims. The Orlando shooter, in other words, doesn't represent the great majority of Muslims around the world.”
The reaction of Islamic organisations across the United States is a testament to this fact. The Islamic Centre of Fort Pierce, a mosque attended by Omar Mateen and his family, released a statement condemning the attack. “The Muslim community of Fort Pierce joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence,” the centre said. Even the shooter’s father has said that the attack "has nothing to do with religion". Moreover, the visceral homophobia of ISIS perpetrate is only matched by the Christian right. Organisations like the Westboro Baptist Church, backed by members of the Republican Party, have always sought to portray the LGBTQ community as sinful deviants. And Donald Trump follows in the same tradition of Republican leaders, who encourage hatred towards the LGBTQ community. In other words, Trump’s view of the incident is nothing but an affirmation of his own racist and xenophobic attitude towards both racial and religious minorities.
In raising the bogey of radical Islam, politicians like Trump have found a way to avoid facing difficult questions of rising gun violence in America. No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same level of gun violence. One of the reasons for that is the insane number of guns Americans possess. The US roughly owns 42 percent of all the world's privately held firearms, despite making up just 4.4 percent of the global population. Numerous studies have shown that more guns translate into more gun-related deaths. Therefore, the best way to reduce the number of gun-related deaths is to limit or completely cut access to such firearms. Fewer guns would very likely lead to few gun-related deaths. But Americans love their guns and that sentiment has been embedded into their constitution. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms. Opponents of stricter gun control measures have often pointed to other factors behind rising gun violence in America, including mental illness. Although studies have shown that up to 60 percent of mass shooters have some kind of psychiatric or psychological symptoms, greater access is probably a better predictor of gun violence. “The awful truth is that American society is vulnerable to these attacks in a way that others are not because of its belief that freedom requires easy, widespread access to lethal weapons,” according to an editorial in The Guardian. “While it is true that guns don’t kill people, as the slogan has it, people with guns do kill people, and they do so much more quickly and effectively than people without guns can manage.”
The editorial goes on to talk about the lax gun laws in the state of Florida, where the incident took place. “Some (mass shootings) occurred in states, such as Florida, where it is legal for almost anyone who applies for a licence to walk around with concealed, lethal weapons – something which does not in practice save anyone’s life if bullets start flying, but which is felt as a reassurance until they do.” In response to a horrific mass shooting at the start of 2016, Obama bypassed Congress and passed a series of executive actions that sought to restrict access to guns. The changes attempt to tighten what's widely known as the "gun show loophole," which is a political term in the United States referring to the sale of firearms by private sellers, including those done at gun shows, dubbed the "secondary market".
The Obama administration also seeks to increase the efficiency of the federal background check system to avoid cases from falling through, besides taking other smaller steps, such as improving the tracking of lost or stolen guns. Last year, Senate Republicans voted against barring suspected terrorists, felons, and the mentally ill from getting guns. They reiterated the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) arguments that doing so would strip some innocent people of their constitutional right to access guns. For the uninitiated, the NRA is an American lobby group which advocates for gun rights enshrined in the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. According to a recent study, the NRA spent $11,159,167 on the 2012 election cycle, making it one of the biggest spenders. In acting without approval from the US Congress, Obama has taken more than a calculated risk. These executive actions have been challenged in various US courts. Moreover, a possible Republican president could unilaterally reverse Obama's actions.