The Terrorist Watch List and America’s Gun Madness

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Friends and family embrace each other outside of Orlando, Florida's police headquarters after the Pulse nightclub massacre on June 12. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

Enough.

In the wake of the horrific massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, it is time for this country, its political leaders and all of its citizens to grow up. The dead—not just the 49 slaughtered in Florida but the thousands upon thousands killed by our cowardice and ignorance all over the country—deserve more than us sending our prayers to the bereaved.

And don’t think this is an argument for your side. The Republicans are wrong on this issue. The Democrats are wrong. The National Rifle Association is wrong. And the American Civil Liberties Union is wrong.

We need to stop pretending that it’s OK for so many Americans to die each year because of conspiracy theories about gun control. We also need to stop pretending that a young Islamic man or a member of a hate group is no more likely to commit an act of terror than a middle-aged, nonreligious handyman. In the words of the late, incomparable Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the Constitution is not a suicide pact, and we must stop worshipping our interpretations of words that are supposed to protect us, not kill us. Based on what is already known about the Orlando killer, Omar Mateen might have been stopped if Americans had acted reasonably a long time ago.

While Mateen’s motives for the attack are still hazy—they seem to involve a toxic stew of radical Islamic fundamentalism, homophobia, a propensity to violence and possible mental illness—he never should have been able to easily acquire the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and handgun he bought recently. While it is not yet certain whether those were the weapons he used in the Orlando massacre, Mateen legally purchased a long gun and a handgun in the past week or two, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Guns like the AR-15 are the favorites of mass killers and were used in the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults, as well as earlier that year in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were slain and 70 wounded).

In their fear of political ire from irrational gun nuts, Republican members of Congress rejected a bill six months ago that would have stopped people on the federal terrorist watch list from buying guns. The House’s unconscionable vote on legislation first proposed by former President George W. Bush in 2007 came one day after two American Muslims linked to ISIS massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Five days later, Senate Democrats tried to force consideration of the bill but failed.

Mateen was not on the watch list when he entered that nightclub early Sunday morning—a record maintained by the FBI formally known as the Terrorist Screening Database—but he was two years ago after he drew the FBI’s attention in 2013, when co-workers reported he’d made “inflammatory” comments to them about radical Islamic propaganda. He was on the list again a year later because of his ties to an American who traveled to the Middle East to become a suicide bomber, but agents determined there was minimal contact between the two.

But what about all the people still on the watch list? Thanks to the Republicans, about 800,000 of those people can legally purchase an AR-15 today; only about 40,000 of those individuals are citizens or lawful permanent residents.  

RTX2FUPQ A rainbow flag is held up with the name of Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where the worst mass shooting in U.S. history occurred, during a June 13 vigil in front of the White House. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

None of the 760,000 or so foreigners residing in the country who are on the watch list should be permitted to purchase any kind of gun. While the 14th Amendment grants them equal protection under the laws, the Supreme Court has already designated limits on all foreign residents’ rights, such as allowing potential employers to bar them from government-funded jobs. The state has an enormous interest in keeping weapons out of the hands of potential threats; preventing foreigners on such a watch list from picking up a slaughter weapon at the neighborhood gun store is a rational application of government authority.

That leaves the 40,000 Americans and permanent residents on the list. While no one can say what percentage of them own guns—the Republicans have barred any effort to gather that information—those people should be barred from buying any kind of gun. And if they attempt to purchase a weapon, the government should reinvestigate them.

There’s another group of people who should be investigated before being allowed to buy a gun: those who have ever been identified as a potential threat (except for those on the list because of a mix-up of names). What possible urgent need does anyone have for buying an AR-15 or similar weapon that has just two uses: shooting-range fun or slaughter? Mateen, who had been on the watch list, should have been flagged the moment he tried to purchase a weapon. He should have been asked what use he had for a semi-automatic rifle. His family and co-workers should have been questioned, his social media postings examined. If he didn’t consent to such an inquiry, his application for purchase should have been denied.

Now for the part liberals will hate. After an investigation as a possible threat, Mateen or anyone with a similar background should have been placed back on the watch list. A young Muslim man who has espoused sympathy for Islamic fundamentalists and who has connections to a violent extremist—no matter how distant—is worthy of suspicion. An attempt to buy a weapon of mass slaughter is a third data point, one that makes him a more likely threat. (Add to that his ex-wife’s allegations of spousal abuse and the signs of danger were piling up.) And whether such a man had traveled to the Middle East in the past decade or so is also worthy of consideration.

Yes, that’s profiling. Face facts: There is a profile for modern-day attackers. Similar profiling should be also be used on anyone, Muslim or not, who is on the watch list because he or she belongs to a designated hate group.

The only way for this screening process to work would be to require universal background checks. Almost half of all gun sales are private transactions that entail no procedural safeguards. No identification is required, there’s no background check, and no records are kept. A law-abiding citizen has no cause to fear a background check; criminals and potential attackers do.

The time has come to stop worrying about Second Amendment absolutists and instead focus on safety. Potentially dangerous people—including hundreds of thousands for whom there is far more evidence of a possible threat than there was for Mateen—can easily buy a gun today in the U.S. Purported solutions like the one espoused by presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump—banning Muslims from coming into the United States—are simplistic nonsense. Every extremist-linked mass slaughter in the U.S. since 9/11—Orlando, San Bernardino and the bombing at the Boston Marathon—was committed by American citizens. (San Bernardino also involved one permanent resident.) And the argument that potential attackers can buy guns from criminals is nonsense; yes, people can break the law, but it is far more difficult to find a black market for slaughter weapons than it is to purchase such a gun at a strip mall.

And for those who hope to rebut this argument for common sense with the canard about politicizing tragedy, know your history. The government wasn’t politicizing the 9/11 attacks when it passed laws to protect this nation. Trying to stop another Orlando isn’t playing politics. It’s self-preservation.