The worst mass killing in modern American history happened a mile from where I used to live.
By now you know the basics: on Saturday night, a mentally unstable waste of human flesh named Omar Mateen, supposedly outraged by the site of two men kissing in Miami, armed himself with an assault rifle and handgun and drove the hour and a half from Fort Pierce to Orlando, where, after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, he proceeded to shoot up an LGBTQ club called Pulse.
Forty-nine dead. Fifty-three wounded. An entire city utterly and completely gut-punched.
My city, even six hundred miles away. My people, even though I don’t know any of the dead.
I spent my formative years in Orlando, first as a student and then as a reporter. I met my wife there. I met my best friends there, including some who are pillars of the now-devastated gay community. From 2012–2013, I owned a house a few blocks east of where Pulse sits in south Orlando. I went to Pulse on several occasions, with gay and straight friends alike. I drank at bars now littered with bullet holes. I danced on floors now covered in blood. I used the bathrooms where terrified victims tried to hide.
Which is all to say: this one hit home, viscerally, tangibly, in a way that mass shootings in Aurora and San Bernardino and even Sandy Hook didn’t.
Mateen, who had a Florida firearms license, bought his weapons legally, from a gun store in Fort Pierce. He acquired a 9mm semiautomatic handgun, a .223-calibre AR-type rifle, and a high-capacity magazine, no questions asked, even though he’d been on the FBI’s radar, having falsely claimed ties to the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013. His ex-wife says he used steroids and beat her. A coworker at the large private security company G4SMateen was a security guard at a local courthousetold USA Today that he frequently went on racist and homophobic tirades. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of person who should not be able to Rambo up with ease. But that’s exactly what he did.
As the horror set in, politicians from around the country offered their “thoughts and prayers” to Orlandomeaningless utterances obscuring their unwillingness to embrace or even contemplate real solutions, things like an assault-weapons ban and tighter background checks that are supported by six in ten and nine in ten Americans, respectively, according to recent Quinnipiac polling.
Righteous anger at the senseless killings that have become altogether commonplacethere were 133 mass shootings in America in the first 164 days of 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archiveis no match, it seems, for the power of the National Rifle Association, which spent more than $30 million in the 2014 election cycle alone and has effectively vetoed even the smallest infringements on unfettered gun rights.
This control is so absolute that, right now, federal funds cannot even be used to study gun violence the way we study every other public health issue, because studying gun violence might eventually lead to new gun regulations, and we can’t have that.
Which presents a troubling question: Twenty dead elementary school kids (and six teachers) in Sandy Hook didn’t soften lawmakers’ fealty to the gun lobby. What reason is there to think fifty dead revelers at a gay bar will?
“That’s the right question to ask,” U.S. Representative David Price, who for the last year has been leading an as-yet unsuccessful charge to restore gun violence research, told me Monday. “I know the answer most people are giving is no.”
While most politicians were content with anodyne “thoughts and prayers” statements, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was not. He laid the blame for the Orlando massacre at the feet of an entire religion, one whose practitioners, in his view, need to be barred from entering the country. (Mateen was an American citizen of Afghan descent born in New York, so Trump’s Muslim-immigration ban wouldn’t apply.)
The killer had a religious veneer to his hatred, though it’s not clear how devout he actually was. Mateen’s ex-wife told the media he showed no signs of religious extremism during their marriage, but after his divorce he traveled twice to Saudi Arabia on religious pilgrimages. He also claimed inspiration from three competing Islamist groups, which is sort of like simultaneously claiming affiliation with the Bloods and Cripsin other words, a sign of a delusional loner desperate for notoriety, rather than a religious fanatic with a coherent ideology.
In fact, ideology may not have been Mateen’s primary motivator at all. On Monday night, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mateen was a Pulse regular who used gay hookup apps. In addition, his ex-wife and a former police academy classmate told media outlets that Mateen was gay.
If Mateen was attracted to men, it’s possible that his hatred of gays was driven by his own self-loathing. But we’ll never know that for sure.
In any event, it’s doubtful he coordinated his attack with the Islamic State; instead, he appears to have responded to propaganda ISIS sent out a few weeks ago encouraging “lone-wolf” attacks during the month of Ramadan.
More than that, religion fanaticism may have offered Mateen a pretext to act on his ingrained homophobia.
As oppressive as Islamist groups and some Muslim countries are toward LGBTQ populations, fundamentalist Muslims don’t have a monopoly on violent homophobia. In fact, according to an analysis of 2011 hate-crime data conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, LGBTQ people are far more likely to be attacked by white supremacists than Muslims. And according to a 2015 Pew study, U.S. Muslims are more accepting of homosexuality than evangelical Christians, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
So strip away religion. The problem is hatred.
Combine hatred with easy access to military-grade weapons, and you get what happened in Orlando. It’s only a matter of time before something like it happens in North Carolina.
The day after the Pulse massacre, state Representative Larry Pittman, a Carrabus Republican, posted the following on Facebook: “If this doesn’t demonstrate the need for American citizens to be armed, I don’t know what does. I don’t know for sure, but I assume the place where this happened was a ‘gun-free zone,’ where law-abiding people were not allowed to be armed. I’m sure it was against the law for the idiot who shot over a hundred people to have his guns in there, too. That law did not prevent him from doing it, and did not save one life.
“That’s the point we need to get through the thick skulls of a lot of anti-gun activists,” he continued. “CRIMINALS AND TERRORISTS DO NOT OBEY GUN LAWS!!! THAT’S WHY OUR CITIZENS NEED TO BE ARMED!!! If just a few of the citizens in that place had been armed, they could have stopped this guy long before the police got there and before he killed or wounded over a hundred people.”
Pittman’s theory, it seems, is that it’s preferable to have several dozen peoplepeople, by definition, drinking at a bararmed to the gills. Whatever could go wrong?
State law permits you to carry weapons in bars, though bars have the option of forbidding weapons, and many do. State law also permits you to arm yourself at playgrounds and carry a concealed weapon on college campuses, provided the gun is stored in a closed compartment in a locked car. You don’t need a permit to purchase riflesincluding the AR-15 and similar assault weapons (see how to buy an assault rifle in North Carolina)though you do need a permit to purchase and carry your handgun with you. Last year, however, lawmakers made that permit easier to get. You still have to pass a background check, complete a training course, and be cleared by the local sheriff’s office, but the sheriff has a narrower scope with which to evaluate permit applications.
If Pittman gets his way, that’ll soon change.
On June 9, he and four other Republicans proposed a change to the state constitution, called the Gun Rights Amendment, that would enable “any person who is a citizen of the United States and is at least 21 years old [to] carry a concealed weapon in this State unless provided otherwise by the law.” (The amendment still prohibits guns at the legislature or the Executive Mansion.) If the amendment clears the legislature, it will go before voters in November.
No license, no permit, no safety courses. But a lot more guns.
Already North Carolina ranks twenty-first in the nation in gun deaths, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. And we know that more gunsand more unfettered access to gunsmeans even more gun deaths.
The states where there are fewer guns have, on average, fewer gun deaths. In North Carolina, about 30 percent of households own guns, and our state sees about twelve gun deaths for every one hundred thousand people, according to data compiled by Mother Jones in 2013. Contrast that to New York, where about 10 percent of population owns guns, and there are about five deaths per one hundred thousand people. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that, for every 1 percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there’s a nearly 1 percent increase in its firearm homicide rate. A 2011 piece in The Atlantic found that states with assault weapons bans and trigger-lock and gun-storage requirements tend to have fewer gun deathsnot just homicides, but also suicides and accidental deathsthan other states.
The data is clear. The only question is what we’ll do about it.
In 1994, Congress passed a federal ban on assault weapons. The rate of mass shootings plummeted. Ten years later, the law expired, and Congress declined to renew it. Mass shootings spiked.
Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but in Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, the killing machine of choice was the AR-15 or a similar semiautomatic assault rifle. (You can learn how to convert them to full automatics with a quick search on YouTube.) As The New York Times reported earlier this week, most guns used in recent mass shootings were purchased legally.
In 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, forty-five senators, including Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, voted to filibuster a bipartisan amendment that would have required background checks for all commercial gun sales (though not sales between “friends and neighbors”), not just sales from federally licensed dealers, as the law currently stipulates. As a result, right now you can buy a gun off the Internet or at a gun show without undergoing any screening whatsoever.
In December, the day after the San Bernardino massacrelike Orlando, also inspired by ISIS and executed with assault riflesSenate Republicans, including Burr and Thom Tillis, rejected a bill that would prohibit people on a terrorism watch list from purchasing guns.
As President Obama told a PBS town hall just two weeks ago: “I just came from a meeting today, in the Situation Room, in which I got people who we know have been on [ISIS] 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 [ISIS] sympathizer, and if he wants to walk into a gun store or a gun show right now, and buy as many weapons and ammo as he can, nothing’s prohibiting him from doing that, even though the FBI knows who he is.”
It’s true that, as gun rights advocates often point out, even the most perfectly crafted gun control mechanisms will sometimes fail. Mateen was taken off a terrorism watch list in 2014. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, got his gun from his mother, so better background checks wouldn’t have stopped him.
But that doesn’t mean we should shrug off massacre after massacre as the cost of doing businesswhich is exactly what we always seem to do.
On Monday evening, following a congressional moment of silence for the fallen, U.S. Representative James Clyburn asked his colleagues to reconsider stalled gun control bills. House Speaker Paul Ryan abruptly cut him off and declared him out of order.
“I’m not very hopeful,” Price told me earlier that day. “But I intend to keep pushing.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “In the Shadow of a Gunman”