Seventeen dead would have been a bad day in Iraq or Afghanistan at the height of our wars there. To see the same death toll Wednesday at a U.S. high school suggests American soil has become a battlefield, too.
A day before Nikolas Cruz’s shooting rampage in Florida and 1,000 miles away in Washington, the leaders of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies briefed Congress on their 2018 worldwide threat assessment. This assessment detailed myriad threats to America’s national security from abroad—China, Russia, transnational organized crime, and terrorism—but ignored the threat from within posed by guns. Wednesday’s carnage in Florida illustrates the problem caused by this collective failure to see the existential threat posed by guns to Americans. As long as it remains easy for malicious people to acquire weapons like those used in Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, or San Bernardino, Americans will die by the dozens.
Guns kill more than 15,000 Americans a year, with the numbers of gun deaths rising slightly from 2016 to 2017. A pattern has emerged after each mass shooting: gratuitous offering of hopes and prayers, followed by proposals for stricter controls on guns or purchases thereof, followed by lobbying by gun advocates and manufacturers for the scuttling of those proposed controls. The net effect is the same, every damned time: Nothing changes. It is as easy to obtain a semi-automatic military-style rifle today as it was two years ago when Omar Mateen used one to kill 49 at an Orlando nightclub; it remains legal to buy bump stocks today, just as it was four months ago when Stephen Paddock used one to murder 58 in Las Vegas. The thunderous hail of bullets is always followed by the silence of a nation that cannot bring itself to do anything besides offer hopes and prayers.
Three broad options exist for the country to do better: regulating guns or ammunition, regulating the people who can acquire them, and creating defenses or responses in case a gun incident occurs. With few exceptions (like the now-expired assault weapons ban), we have focused our national response on the last, with deadly consequences.
Better regulation of guns or ammunition would be entirely justifiable and lawful under our Constitution, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence on gun ownership. If the federal government can regulate explosives and machine guns, then certainly it can more closely regulate the acquisition of military-style rifles, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks, or military-grade ammunition. And yet, these moves have been stymied after each massacre by an unholy alliance between the NRA, the gun industry, and the Republican Party. There was a time when conservatives such as Ronald Reagan embraced gun control, both as a nod to responsible gun owners and a nod to American law enforcement. No longer; the gun lobby seems to prevail every single time.
A second option would be to regulate gun owners and their purchasing rights, such as is now the case for felons and others like those dishonorably discharged from the military. This path may be more fraught given the courts’ recent Second Amendment jurisprudence, which would require careful tailoring of any new rules that impinge on the constitutional right to bear arms. A lawful, common-sense approach would likely start by limiting gun acquisition by those on terrorist watch lists, or those with serious mental health disorders. However, the NRA has successfully fought each of these efforts in recent years. Indeed, President Trump signed a bill last year making it easier for Americans with serious mental health disorders to obtain firearms.
Our national failure to smartly regulate guns or the people who get them leaves just one option: hardening civil defenses, the 21st-century equivalent of what we did during the Cold War to build bunkers and shelters to survive a potential nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Hardening schools, churches, and government buildings works to a point, but you can’t harden everything, and protecting some sites only turns others into more attractive targets. Law enforcement agencies can’t be everywhere; trauma centers can save only so many lives when bodies are ripped apart by high-velocity bullets. These civil defense measures have saved lives in recent attacks, but they have not stopped the attacks themselves.
The NRA’s answer has been to arm more people, not fewer, under the theory that a “good guy with a gun” can stop a shooter in their tracks. This is a dangerous fantasy that will likely only get more people killed. For starters, a good guy with a gun is rarely at the right place and time. To be effective, such a good guy (or woman) would also need a level of expertise and combat skill found only in the best trained military or law enforcement personnel. And in some cases, like Las Vegas, even that would be inadequate, based on the shooter’s advantage in location and weaponry. A more likely outcome is that a good guy with a gun would turn a mass shooting into a firefight, potentially killing additional bystanders in the crossfire.
Our country spends hundreds of billions of dollars on an intelligence and military capability to protect Americans from external threats, both real and projected. We do quite little to protect Americans at home from the very real threat of guns—a threat which took an average of 42 lives per day in 2017. Framing matters. Presenting guns as a law enforcement issue has not catalyzed an effective response; describing gun violence in public health terms has illustrated the scope of carnage, but also not generated a sufficient societal response. Perhaps presenting gun violence as a national security threat will finally galvanize America to act. On his way out as director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen mused, “We find ourselves in a more dangerous situation because our population of violent extremists has no difficulty gaining access to weapons that are quite lethal.” He’s right—but the threat does not just come from violent extremists. It comes from Americans like Stephen Paddock and Nikolas Cruz, too—and the time has come for us overcome the powerful people who insist on pretending that threat doesn’t exist.
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