The United States has a gun problem.
Will the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., last Sunday — the largest in modern U.S. history, which left 49 people dead at Pulse nightclub — really mark a new political impetus to end the decades-old stalemate over gun control vs. gun rights in this country?
One day after the shooting, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Helen Ubiñas walked into a gun shop and in seven minutes was able to buy a AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the same weapon used in the Orlando attack and many other mass shootings in recent years. Seven minutes from the time she handed over her driver’s license to the time she passed the background check.
“If it wasn’t so appallingly easy to get a gun in this country, it wouldn’t be easy for the next gunman to deliver the kind of carnage that’s as much a part of this country as the American flag.
And there will undoubtedly be a next one,” Ubiñas wrote.
The United States suffers a mass killing almost every day. CNN reported the U.S was home to nearly one-third of the world’s mass killings — those in which at least four people died — in the past 50 years.
And the frequency and severity is accelerating: In the first 164 days of 2016, there have been 136 mass shootings in the U.S. The top three worst mass shootings in U.S. history have happened within the past decade: Pulse nightclub, Orlando, FL, this past week (49 dead); Virginia Tech, Blackburg, Va, in 2007 (32 dead); Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, Conn., in 2012 (27 dead).
The issue became entangled in the presidential election season, with Donald Trump renewing his call to ban any Muslims from entering the U.S. Never mind that Sunday’s shooter, Omar Mateen, was born in the states. President Barack Obama called Trump’s comments “dangerous,” and Hillary Clinton said they were “shameful.”
On June 2, President Obama spoke at a town hall in Elkhart, Ind., for PBS News Hour, during which he fielded questions about gun control. In a portion of the town hall, a man accused Democrats of trying to take away guns from law-abiding citizens. Obama said he has never proposed confiscating guns from responsible gun owners, but he puts the blame on the gun lobby for making it impossible to limit the kinds of guns people can buy.
The president then described a situation that was chillingly prescient to the carnage that would take place in Orlando just 10 days later.
He said he was recently in a meeting about “people who we know have been on ISIL websites, living here in the United States, U.S. citizens, and we’re allowed to put them on the no-fly list when it comes to airlines, but because of the National Rifle Association, I cannot prohibit those people from buying a gun.”
“This is somebody who is a known ISIL sympathizer,” Obama continued. “And if he wants to walk into a gun store or a gun show right now and buy as much — as many weapons and ammo as he can, nothing’s prohibiting him from doing that, even though the FBI knows who that person is.”
The man Obama spoke about bore disturbing similarities to Mateen, who swore allegiance to the Islamic State during the massacre and had been investigated by the FBI for terrorist ties, but the case was closed.
Democrats, in an effort led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have argued for a ban on gun sales to people on federal terrorism watchlists, but Republicans favor a less restrictive ban, preventing only those classified as terrorism suspects, a much smaller group, from purchasing firearms.
The U.S. Senate is poised to vote as early as tomorrow on Feinstein’s proposal and the competing, more narrow, measure by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. At this point the issue appears doomed since no one seems willing to compromise, nor is there hope that either side can secure the needed 60 votes.
Interestingly, this week Trump seemed to side with the Democratic proposal and said he intended to meet with the NRA about it, but it was unclear what solution he envisioned. Trump also said more gun ownership was the answer to events like Sunday’s shooting, suggesting if more people in the nightclub had guns they could have defended themselves.
Will this effort to enact gun controls fail like past attempts, with no ability to find compromise between the aisles? Perhaps that is the predictable outcome, but it would be a terrible result to this latest reminder — as if we needed one — that our society is at a breaking point when it comes to gun violence.
Not to be lost in the anger and political gamesmanship is the fact that this was an attack on a gay nightclub by a man who was said to frequent the club and used gay dating apps. As much as he might have claimed an affinity for the Islamic State during the attack, his actions bore the mark of someone at war with himself over his sexuality. This was an attack not just against America but against the LGBT community specifically, a fact seemingly lost on many of the Republican lawmakers and conservative commenters that used the massacre to extol anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and pro-gun stances this week.
This omission is particularly hurtful coming during Pride month.
As news of the horror that unfolded in Orlando spread last Sunday, Pastor Roger Jimenez stood in front of his congregation at Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento and said, “Are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today? Um no, I think that’s great! I think that helps society. I think Orlando, Florida, is a little safer tonight.”
It is this kind of blind hate, bigotry and tendency toward violence that is the dark side of our national character. If it wasn’t for such easy access to guns, though, such ugly tendencies would be limited and contained events. The flood of firearms and the ease of obtaining high-power assault rifles means anyone with hate in their heart can destroy lives and communities. They should not be allowed to have such power. Until there is a significant change to how we limit and control gun sales, the United States can only pretend to be the tolerant, multi-ethnic and diverse nation we like to claim we are.
Michael Howerton is editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Examiner.