Massacre in Orlando may prove to be a turning point in US gun control debate

The US now has a unique opportunity to shift the burden of proof about the necessity for stronger gun control regulation, writes Frederic Lemieux

The Orlando mass shooting is different from the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, California.

Different also from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, or the multiplex movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, or the Virginia Tech mass shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia.

When Omar Mateen killed at least 49 people and wounded more than 50 others early Sunday at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the victims were not a random group of people sharing the same physical space. They were all part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

With this, the Orlando massacre could prove to be a turning point in the US gun-control debate. Mateen may have cemented an alliance between gun-regulation advocacy groups and the well-organised LGBT social movement. It could catalyse the mobilisation of a united front that expands the political and social reach critical for passing meaningful gun regulations.

As a criminologist, I have reviewed and written many studies on mass shootings, and Orlando stands out because of the convergence of four key characteristics.

First, it is the most deadly mass shooting in US history. Second, the crime was carried out with assault-type weapons (the AR-15). Third, the shooter, law enforcement authorities say, pledged allegiance to Islamic State during the attack. Fourth, and most crucial, the attack singled out a specific community and appears largely motivated by sexual prejudice, which, by definition, becomes a hate crime.

These four characteristics have never before combined in any one US mass shooting. The horrific 2015 attack at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, was categorised as a hate crime. But it was not connected to any jihadist ideology. The shooter, Dylan Roof, did not use military-style weapons, and fewer than 10 people were killed.

The mass shooting in Orlando provides a unique opportunity to shift the burden of proof about the necessity for stronger gun-control regulation. First, it is critical to acknowledge that the majority of mass shooters have been marked by mental health issues, social alienation, or work disgruntlement.

Massacre in Orlando may prove to be a turning point in US gun control debate

They had a variety of motivations, often not aimed at weakening government legitimacy, which is what motivates groups like Islamic State or al- Qaeda. The most frequent motivations are revenge or a quest for power.

Orlando fits the pattern of Islamic State-inspired shootings that seek to spread fear and portray the US government’s counterterrorism strategy as ineffective. In addition, Islamic State has pointed out to possible recruits that they should take advantage of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, which a majority of Americans view as a fundamental constitutional pillar.

Yet, this right to bear arms could pose a serious national-security vulnerability because it provides violent extremists the same legal protections that American citizens enjoy.

The result? The lack of tough gun regulations makes it easier for Islamic State recruits to kill Americans at home or stage mass shootings abroad with assault-type weapons bought legally.

After the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, the public could press US Congress to acknowledge that weak firearm regulation is a serious breach in the protection of the homeland against domestic and foreign aggressors. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time that US national security was used as a reason to restrict constitutional rights. After 9/11, the American people gave up more than a few constitutional rights when the Bush administration, under the USA Patriot Act and various presidential directives, weakened civil liberties for the sake of bolstering US security.

One of the most controversial breaches of fundamental constitutional rights permitted the National Security Agency to turn its signal interception inward and spy on the American people without first obtaining legal warrants.

Public calls to regulate firearms for national-security reasons and possibly save more American lives — despite Second Amendment rights — should not come as a surprise.

To improve homeland security, the argument goes, US citizens would be better protected if more restrictive background checks were performed and if people were required to prove “good character”. This could include not belonging to any group “prohibited” from owning firearms — the mentally ill, for example, or criminals or terror suspects (like Mateen). It should also include people deemed high risk for committing violent crime, such as individuals with a police record for threatening the life of another.

In attacking the Pulse nightclub, a well-known LGBT gathering spot, Mateen took aim at a community with an estimated nine million members across the US. For more than 20 years, the LGBT community has mobilised into a powerful social movement that has demonstrated its ability to successfully advocate for a broad range of rights.

In previous mass shootings, because the victims and their families were not linked by any specific bond, such as identity or social-movement involvement, a cohesive mobilisation to advocate for stricter gun regulations was often complicated and difficult.

The unique characteristics of the Orlando mass shooting, however, could influence passage of meaningful gun-control reform in Congress.

This was something that even the tragedy of 20 dead first-graders at Sandy Hook could not bring about.

The LGBT community was targeted with unprecedented violence in Orlando. This media-savvy community led the 20-year cultural shift in how Americans view gay people and gay marriage. Combining the LBGT community with national- security demands for stricter control of gun sales well could create the momentum needed to propel Congress to act.

Frederic Lemieux is programme director of the Security & Safety Leadership Master’s Programme, as well as cybersecurity strategy and information management master’s degree and police and security studies bachelor’s degree at The George Washington University.

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