Our gun problem IS a terrorism problem

ISIS has found the biggest hole in America’s defenses: our lax gun laws.

When Democrats in Congress responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting by renewing calls for gun control, Ted Cruz made a sharp distinction:

This is not a gun control issue; it’s a terrorism issue.

In other words, if it’s one it can’t be the other. Gallup implicitly endorsed that framing by making its respondents choose. The result was the usual partisan polarization: 79% of Republicans described the Pulse attack as “Islamic terrorism”, while 60% of Democrats called it “domestic gun violence”. [1]

But following just half a year after the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando shooting makes the guns-or-terrorism argument obsolete. It’s all one issue now. ISIS is actively encouraging lone-wolf attacks, and the easy availability of AR-15s and other military-style weapons makes the United States uniquely vulnerable to lone-wolf terrorism. Our political inability to control or track even the most destructive guns keeps that hole in our defenses open.

I’m amazed it took Islamic State strategists so long to figure that out. About a year after 9-11, the Washington metro area was terrorized by someone the press called “the D.C. sniper“. Over a three-week period he shot 13 people apparently at random, ten of whom died. Rather than a mass killing, these were individual attacks that seemed completely unpatterned and unpredictable: one victim was sitting at a bus stop reading a book, another was pumping gas at a self-service station, and a third was walking down a street.

That’s what made the attacks so terrifying: Wherever you were in the D.C. area and whatever you happened to be doing, if you were out in public you had to consider the possibility that you might suddenly be killed.

The press speculated about Al Qaeda, but the killers turned out to have no connection to international terrorism. They were just two guys with a rifle who had drilled a barrel-hole into the trunk of a rusty old car. Their plan was breathtakingly simple: They found obscure spots with clear views of public places and parked there, with the middle-aged sniper hidden in the trunk until a target appeared. After the shots were fired, his 17-year-old accomplice drove them away.

By comparison, 9-11 had been such a complex operation: It was planned in Afghanistan, then communicated to conspirators in Germany, America, and who knows how many other places. The attackers had to gain entry the U.S., where they spent months training in skills like flying a plane. On the designated day, they assembled in airports to play their roles in the plan.

Because 9-11 had so many moving parts and involved so many people, it had many possible points of failure: Communications could be intercepted. Conspirators might raise suspicion while entering the country or during training, then crack under interrogation. They might lose their nerve and defect. They might look suspicious at the airport. The other passengers might fight for control of the plane.

Those failure-points allowed the U.S. government to respond quickly, closing down many of the vulnerabilities that let 9-11 happen. Changes were made in cockpits, in airports, in our screening of people entering the country, and in how we track terrorism suspects. Nobody has succeeded in pulling off a 9-11-style attack since.

But effective as they had been in terrorizing a major urban area, the D.C. sniper duo changed nothing. If Osama bin Laden had realized the significance of that, he and his successors could have kept Americans far more frightened than we have been these last 14 years.

Which is not to say we haven’t been frightened, but more by each other than by foreign terrorists. The years since the D. C. sniper have seen a series of ever-more-horrific mass shootings. Each time, Congress took no action to reduce our vulnerability.

Terrorist plotters may be slow, but eventually they catch on. By now, as Pulse and San Bernadino make clear, ISIS understands very well: One disgruntled, alienated, or insane American (or permanent resident [2]) can easily kill dozens, without breaking any laws until the moment he or she opens fire. A tourist could be equally deadly; the only additional point of legal danger in that plan would be a black-market gun purchase [3], which is made simpler by the fact that we have no system for keeping track of guns, even military-style weapons. [4]

Carrying out such an attack requires little planning or training, so such plans have very few points where they are vulnerable to detection or interruption. Omar Mateen, Rizwan Farook, and Tashfeen Malik did not have to spend weeks at some terrorist camp in Syria or Libya. They didn’t need to smuggle anything into the country or coordinate their plans with some handler from ISIS central command. [5] They just had to buy guns, practice shooting them, and then go kill people.

Best of all (from ISIS’ point of view) the Islamic State didn’t even need to think this up for themselves. All they had to do was observe how defenseless we are against mass shootings (as Sandy Hook made obvious) and how dysfunctional our political system has been in responding to that weakness (as Congress’ complete lack of response to Sandy Hook made obvious). Even after two wildly successful attacks, ISIS doesn’t have to worry all that much about the government shutting down points of vulnerability. With the NRA on the case, no pro-terrorism lobby is needed. [6]

So it may have taken them a while, but the terrorists have adapted. The question is whether we will adapt, overcome the NRA’s resistance, and force our representatives to face the new reality. Will we find ways to reduce the number of the most lethal guns and make the existing ones easier to track? Will we limit guns’ mass-killing potential by banning high-capacity magazines? Will we allow authorities to track suspicious guns-and-ammunition purchasing patterns?

That isn’t just a gun-control agenda any more. It’s an anti-terrorism agenda. Given what we’ve seen, any purported anti-terrorism agenda that does not include such gun-control measures is just not serious.

[1] A third option of “both equally” was offered and drew only 6%. But that choice still paints a picture of two distinct factors that just happen to be present in equal quantities. “Both equally” does not express what I’m claiming here: that mass shootings are our primary terrorism vulnerability.

[2] Guns laws are stricter for non-citizens than for citizens, but permanent residents have all the same second-amendment rights citizens do.

[3] A black-market purchase might not even be necessary, because existing gun laws are so poorly enforced at gun shows, and many laws don’t even apply there. Here, for example, a 13-year-old boy buys a rifle.

[4] The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 forbids the federal government to compile a list or database of gun owners and the guns they own. Paperwork related to background checks on gun buyers is supposed to be thrown away within 24 hours. Jacob Paulsen of usaFirearmTraining.com writes: “Generally speaking for the majority of American gun owners there is no system, database, or registry that ties us to any of our firearms.”

By contrast, we have very tight controls on military weapons like machine guns, bazookas, and hand grenades. Those controls work: Such weapons have not been used in our series of mass killings.

[5] By contrast, the Paris attack was a complex plot involving multiple coordinated actions by experienced operatives, some of whom had fought in Syria. It required ISIS to use resources that authorities could then take off the board. Killing large numbers of Americans is much simpler.

[6] The fact that after Orlando and San Bernardino, the Senate is having so much trouble taking the simplest step — preventing already-identified terrorism suspects from buying more guns — does not bode well. Even if the two parties do manage water something down enough to pass it, the House is unlikely to go along.

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  • Anonymous Poster  On June 20, 2016 at 8:19 am

    On that last point: The fact that innocent people can be put on such watchlists, sometimes for years and with no real recourse available to have their names taken off, makes me hesitant to support the idea.

    • weeklysift  On June 21, 2016 at 7:37 am

      I get that point, and I’ve expressed it before on this blog. My preference (for both guns and plane flights) would be for somebody outside the executive branch to have a say before a name goes on the list, and for there to be a legal process you can go through to get your name off.

      The problem with the Grassley proposal (that also failed Monday and attempted to address this problem) is that the process he proposes is too cumbersome for the government. It would virtually never be used.

      I think it should be easy for the government to put a name on the list (with some kind of judicial involvement, as there is with FISA warrants), and that the process for getting your name off should be straightforward, but not automatic. So far I haven’t seen my ideal proposal in Congress.

  • TyphoidMary  On June 20, 2016 at 10:16 am

    I get that you are trying to provide a specific take on one aspect of the Orlando shooting (and other shootings), and specifically within the context of policy. However, to write an article about the motives of shooters like than in Orlando, and not even MENTION homophobia, seems like an awfully big oversight. Yes, it is an example of how extremists can easily take advantage of our laws, but I think framing the Orlando shooter as another terrorist radicalized by Isis is a bit disingenuous, or rather, simplistic.

    I bring it up because a lot of queer communities are frustrated that this shooting is being used to foster Islamophobia while not even acknowledging the role that homophobic policy and legislation play.

    I don’t think that is what you are trying to do in this article, and you have made some really compelling points. But I think categorizing the Orlando shooter as merely a “lone wolf terrorist” inspired by Isis elides the other elements at play: good old fashioned American homophobia and toxic masculinity.

    Thanks again for another well-researched, thoughtful piece. As always, it gives me lots to think about and consider.

    • weeklysift  On June 20, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      I do a broader coverage of the shooter’s possible motives in the weekly summary. Featured articles are necessarily more focused.

  • Sara Greene  On June 20, 2016 at 11:23 am

    I am not comfortable with the simplistic reasoning that is being used to explain the horrible events that occurred in Orlando. I am disappointed that no one has explored why a third grade student had such rage, used sexually explicit language, and found it difficult to get along with peers. As former elementary teacher the whole scene cried out to me of disfunction in the home. To lay the blame on various outside web sites, and the influence of groups like ISIIS seems an easy way to not take responsibility for the failures of various parts of our society.

  • Tom Stites  On June 20, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    Do any of the websites that are famous for inspiring terrorists say outright that you should just go buy an AR-15, get some practice, and then blaze away at a the patrons of a nightclub or a civic meeting?

  • Tom Amitai (@TomAmitaiUSA)  On June 20, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    The “Firearm Owner’s Protection Act” really ought to be called the “Red Dawn Act”: https://youtu.be/3OaF-j8x5Vc

    Read the comments under that clip at your own peril! 😉

    • weeklysift  On June 21, 2016 at 7:47 am

      I saw the original Red Dawn from the Reagan Era, but not the remake. Some news organization ought to sponsor a full scale Red Dawn war game, to test the effectiveness of a plucky group of American teen-agers with semi-automatic rifles against a trained military force.

      The problem with the whole we-need-to-be-able-to-fight-an-army theory is that it also justifies individual ownership of bazookas and tanks. Imagine a homegrown jihadist rolling through a Central Park concert in a tank.


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