This weekend, Omar Mateen committed the worst rampage shooting in American history. Forty-nine innocent people died in a massacre targeting the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community in Orlando, Florida. While mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun homicides, they remain a terrifying stream of tragedies, and have only become more frequent in recent years. Barring implausibly radical changes to American gun policy, we have no miracle cure to prevent such mass homicides. However, we can still take realistic steps to reduce their frequency. Below are three basic insights that might guide what can be done:
We can’t specifically identify many dangerous perpetrators before they harm others. Robbers, thieves, and gang members accumulate arrest records that make it easier to identify them and to hinder their access to lethal weapons. Indeed, our efforts to prevent ordinary criminals from gaining access to guns are more effective than is commonly acknowledged. We need to improve computer record-keeping and implement universal background check systems to further restrict access to weaponry by specific individuals we know must be kept away from firearms.
It is a sign of our political dysfunction that Mateen may have been on a terrorist watch list yet remained legally entitled to buy an assault rifle, with little apparent oversight or investigation.
Yet, ironically, people who seek powerful weapons for the sole purpose of committing an atrocity are often especially difficult to pick out. We’ll surely hear more in the coming days about authorities’ specific efforts to question Omar Mateen, who had previously come to the attention of the FBI. It is a sign of our political dysfunction that Mateen may have been on a terrorist watch list yet remained legally entitled to buy an assault rifle, with little apparent oversight or investigation. While such watch lists have many limitations, they should constrain access to such lethal weaponry.
But even here, it’s important not to infer too much from these specific facts. Whatever red flags Mateen might have displayed appear far brighter after he murdered fifty people than they appeared before. He held security jobs and obtained legitimate weapons permits. He said scary things to co-workers about gay people and Jews. Then again, so do many others, who don’t go on to commit homicides. He may have been physically abusive in his marriage. As far as I know, such behavior resulted in no formal legal action.
Few mass shooters offer clear and actionable prior indicators that would bar them from buying guns under current law.
Few mass shooters offer clear and actionable prior indicators that would bar them from buying guns under current law. Robert Dear killed three people and wounded nine others at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic. Afterwards, neighbors told reporters that Dear was a scary loner who didn’t make much sense to people who tried to speak with him. Yet he was never convicted of a disqualifying crime. He was never involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility. For all outward appearances, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were functional young parents who held responsible jobs before they murdered fourteen people—which is why there must be intensive federal controls placed on weapons such as assault rifles. The New York Times’ Michael Luo offers many other examples in an article aptly titled: “Orlando aftermath: Red flags, yet legally able to buy a gun.”
Precisely because we won’t specifically identify many future perpetrators, certain weapons and equipment require stringent controls, or should even be banned for civilian use. Military-derived semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 account for a small fraction of all U.S. homicides. Yet these weapons, and accompanying equipment such as high-capacity magazines, are the obvious weapons of choice in a sufficient number of rampage killings to justify a specific response. Their capacity to kill many people quickly should, itself, justify stringent regulation. Beyond that, these weapons have an iconic appeal to lone-wolf jihadis, disturbed individuals, and anti-government fanatics. Tactical gear such as flash suppressors and body armor might also merit greater oversight, partly because these items are appealing complements to the apocalyptic scripts of people who seek to commit atrocities.
We can make other changes, too. It is especially difficult to identify dangerous young adults such as Elliot Rodger who might be experiencing severe anger or emerging severe mental illness, but who have yet to display actionable signs, and who have not accumulated the paper trail that would deem them prohibited possessors under federal or state law. Following the example of rental car agencies, we might consider more stringent restrictions on gun purchases among adults younger than 25.
Gun politics are more promising than they appear. Right after Newtown, I attended a small meeting with a senator where advocates and policy experts discussed what might be done. He predicted in no uncertain terms that nothing would be done: “We had a congresswoman shot in the face, and nothing was done. What makes you think we’ll do something now?” An aide offered an even more chilling prediction: “We won’t do anything until Islamic terrorists exploit our gun laws to commit a Mumbai-style attack.” Sure enough, the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill won a narrow Senate majority but failed to overcome a filibuster. Then came the ISIS-inspired San Bernardino killings, suggesting that the aide’s cynical prediction might not have been cynical enough.
Although the smart money is cynical, I think the politics of gun policy are shifting. A large majority of Americans continue to support specific policies such as universal background checks. That’s actually less significant than the way partisan political calculations have changed. Aggressive gun policy is becoming a core element of Democratic Party politics. President Obama of Chicago, Illinois draws a hard line on the issue. Senator Clinton drew blood from Senator Sanders over gun policy, too.
The hardened partisan valence of gun ownership and second amendment advocacy is especially important. Ian Millhiser notes that the National Rifle Association spent $1.3 million to defeat Senator Mark Pryor (D–AK), who had voted against background checks and related measures. As politicians and voters code the NRA and its allies as simply Republican, Democratic officials’ incentives to align with the NRA are much diminished.
When the political moment arrives, the research and law enforcement community must be ready with effective, evidence-based, and feasible policies that can save lives.
Prospects of reaching agreement on effective gun legislation in the current, majority-GOP Congress are bleak. But Democrats will win strong Congressional majorities in some coming election. When that happens, Congress is much more likely to enact aggressive policies. And better policies could prevent at least some tragedies such as what happened in Orlando. When the political moment arrives, the research and law enforcement community must be ready with effective, evidence-based, and feasible policies that can save lives.
Cover Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Vigil in response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. Minneapolis, Minnesota. June 12, 2016.