The Murder in the early hours of June 12th of at least 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, apparently by a 29-year-old American-born Muslim wielding an assault rifle and handgun, was swiftly and loudly seized upon by political partisans as a vindication of everything that they already believe about Muslims, the fight against terrorism and the exceptional prevalence of private gun ownership in America.
The slaughter—the deadliest mass shooting in American history and the worst terrorist attack since September 2001—will not lead to tougher federal gun controls. It will not pave the way for even the most modest step advocated by Barack Obama and other gun-safety advocates each time that the country endures a fresh massacre by firearm: namely, more consistent screening of gun buyers against existing watch-lists of those with serious criminal histories or severe mental illness. If public horror were ever going to have pressured Congress to pass new legislation making it harder for dangerous people to own powerful weapons, it would have done so after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings of December 2012 when a deranged young man murdered 20 small children in cold blood, as well as six adult members of staff.
Instead, the Florida massacre prompted a shouting-match, liable to change no minds but only to harden hearts. As so often recently, the most strident voice belonged to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, who has openly mused in the past about how previous terror attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California boosted his campaign. On Sunday—at about the same time as police began counting bodies in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, steeling themselves to ignore the constantly ringing mobile telephones of the dead, as loved-ones desperately sought news—Mr Trump took to Twitter to report that he was being praised for his foresight in having said that radical Islamists pose a threat to the West. Mr Trump wrote: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
Elaborating on his theme in a later statement, Mr Trump sharply criticised both Mr Obama and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, for not using the words “radical Islam” when they denounced the Orlando massacre. Mr Trump called on Mr Obama to resign over his choice of words and added: “If Hillary Clinton, after this attack, still cannot say the two words ‘Radical Islam’ she should get out of this race for the Presidency.” Though the property developer’s campaign statement did not repeat his call for a temporary entry ban on Muslims, he did cast Muslim immigration as an unstoppable menace. “Hillary Clinton wants to dramatically increase admissions from the Middle East, bringing in many hundreds of thousands during a first term—and we will have no way to screen them, pay for them, or prevent the second generation from radicalising,” he said.
There are several ways to explain the horrible slaughter that the gunman, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, from Fort Pierce, about 120 miles southeast of Orlando, was able to carry out before being shot dead by police when they broke into the club with an armoured vehicle. One way is to note that he appears to have been able to purchase an AR-15 military-style rifle legally, and that to note that that style of high-powered rifle has been the killing-machine of choice for several mass shooters.
He was able to buy the rifle and a handgun even though, according to FBI press briefings, he had been interviewed by agents in 2013 after making statements praising radical Islamic propaganda, and then again in 2014 by agents probing his ties with an American who travelled to the Middle East to become a suicide bomber. Both times the interviews were inconclusive, FBI agents told reporters in Florida, adding that the killer was not under investigation at the time of Sunday’s shooting.
Though more details will emerge in further days, it is the case that such high-powered weapons are unusually common in America, when compared to other large, rich countries. Though no central database exists, there are thought to be almost as many guns in private hands, or about 300m, as there are Americans. After previous mass shootings, applications for new gun permits and gun sales have risen sharply, as gun-owners hear dire warnings that the government is coming to disarm them.
It is also the case that Republicans in Congress have moved to block Democratic proposals to block gun sales to people on federal no-fly lists for those suspected of terror links, citing the rights of those who may be on such lists by mistake. It is not yet known whether the Orlando killer was on any such list.
Another way to explain the slaughter in Orlando is to ponder the hatred in the shooter’s heart, and its apparent links to religious extremism. The killer is reported to have called the 911 emergency telephone line and declared his allegiance to the fanatics of Islamic State. His father, who is from Afghanistan, told NBC television that his son had recently seen two men kissing in Miami, and “got very angry”.
It is surely reasonable to suggest that two different sorts of problem help to explain how one man could carry out such evil in Orlando: on the one hand, the menace posed by radical Islam and on the other, the easy availability of very powerful guns. It is predictable that Mr Trump and other Republicans only want to talk about the former cause and not the latter. After terrorist shootings in Paris and in San Bernardino, indeed, Mr Trump carefully adopted a favoured talking point of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, and said that innocents died in such places as the Bataclan Theatre in Paris precisely because they were not armed. In a recent speech to NRA members, Mr Trump (without evidence) accused Mrs Clinton of wanting to abolish the Second Amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms, and promised to abolish “gun-free zones.”
The cheers for Mr Trump are more than predictable, they are depressing and alarming. For, to be clear, in turning his back on any suggestion of limiting the availability of powerful guns that make it possibly to kill a lot of people rapidly, Mr Trump is rejecting a practical policy that has been actually tried in developed Western democracies, from Australia to Japan or Britain, and which has worked.
A brief note here about pesky facts. One of the favourite ploys of pro-gun lobbyists in America is to claim that Australia and Britain have been plagued with violent crime since each of those countries endured a big gun massacre and responded by tightening gun laws dramatically. The pro-gun lobby’s numbers do not add up. Australia outlawed assault rifles, semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns. Australia has not had another mass shooting since its laws changed in 1996, and a University of Sydney study shows that firearm homicide rates fell 7.5% per year after the introduction of the new laws, with no offsetting rise in other homicides. Australian robbery and break-in rates have also fallen since 1996.
As for Britain, the number of violent assaults in America is comparable to those of other western countries, yet murders are much more common. Guns are used in two-thirds of all murders. Americans are five times as likely to be murdered as Britons but over 40 times as likely to be murdered with a gun.
Worse, Mr Trump is not just dismissing out of hand a policy—gun control—that has been used with success in other countries. Instead he is urging Americans to make him president so he can try a vague, detail-free policy to keep the country safe by somehow closing the country to dangerous Muslims: a policy that has been tried with success by precisely no country, anywhere.
Does Mr Trump really believe, for instance, that uttering the magic words “radical Islam” would make terrorism go away? If he thinks that America should go around saying that it is at war with radical Islam, does he think that would make it easier to recruit Muslim allies at home and abroad, and if not, how does he propose to beat Muslim extremism without their help? What does he mean when he says that America has “no way” to screen Muslim immigrants or to stop the second generation from radicalising? Is he proposing to expel American-born Muslims such as the Orlando killer?
In any context, Mr Trump’s fairground-huckster approach to politics would be alarming. After an event as horrible as the slaughter in Orlando, it is also a disgrace.
Source – The Economist