The only reasonable response to the massacre in Orlando is to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons. All else, I’m afraid, is just noise.
If this ensconces me in an ideological corner, I’m fine with that. If it insults the Constitution, so be it – any other response would do far greater harm to our freedoms. Or we could argue for a while and then do nothing. We’ve tried that course of action many times, and it doesn’t work.
An Islamic State sympathizer was able to go into a gun store days or weeks ago and buy both a pistol and an AR-15-style semiautomatic assault rifle, which he used to kill 49 men and women at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Had he been armed with the pistol alone, he still would have killed people – but not so many. Keeping military-grade combat weapons out of the hands of maniacs should not be a controversial idea.
The Second Amendment enshrines the right to keep and bear arms, and the Supreme Court has ruled that this is an individual right, not a collective one. The court has made clear, however, that this does not preclude reasonable gun control measures. Not all weapons must be considered suitable for private hands.
When the framers wrote of “arms,” they were thinking about muskets and single-shot pistols. They could not have foreseen modern rifles or high-capacity magazines. They lived at a time when it was impossible to imagine one man barging into a crowded room and killing more than one or two people before having to reload and surely being subdued. Today it is not only imaginable but tragically commonplace.
No hunter needs an AR-15 to bring down a deer. None of us needs such a weapon to defend our families against intruders. And for those who believe assault rifles offer protection against a hypothetical tyrannical government – or who perhaps consider the present government a tyranny – I have sobering news: If and when the black helicopters come, they will be accompanied by tanks.
Why focus exclusively on the guns? Because other proposed solutions would violate the letter and spirit of the Constitution – and surely wouldn’t work anyway.
One of the presidential candidates – I don’t want to sully this column with his name – has suggested a ban on Muslim immigration. The idea would be laughable if it were not so dangerously un-American.
First, it would be useless. The Orlando murderer – I don’t want to use his name, either – was born not overseas but in New York, just like the presidential candidate in question. And in the San Bernardino killing spree, also inspired by the Islamic State, the wife was an immigrant but the husband was born in the U.S. The self-radicalization of American citizens is not going to be solved by banning all believers in Islam from entry.
Which would be impossible, of course. I suppose immigration officers could ask every foreign visitor whether he or she is a Muslim, but then what? If the answer is no, wave them through? Stop them for further questioning if they “look” Muslim, whatever that means? Don’t you think Islamic State operatives might be smart enough to have Bibles in their carry-on rather than Qurans?
Attempting such a prohibition would also be obscene in a nation that enshrines religious freedom in the First Amendment. Enough said about this loathsome idea.
Another possible response would involve more vigilant surveillance. The Orlando shooter had been interviewed by the FBI at least twice because of alleged extremist leanings or connections. He was apparently on a terrorism watch list for a time, but was removed after authorities decided there was no need to keep him under suspicion.
By all means, Congress should immediately ban gun sales to anyone on such a watch list. But that wouldn’t have helped in Orlando. No level of surveillance remotely permissible under the Constitution would allow authorities to detect all instances of self-radicalization and act on them. We put people in jail for what they do, not what they think.
Should there be universal background checks for gun purchases? Yes, of course. But the Orlando killer passed a background check. It is not possible to have a free society without the presumption of innocence.
Freedom is possible, however, without the right to buy military weapons designed for killing sprees. Banning them would not end mass killings, but it would mean fewer deaths. If we do not act, the blood of future victims will be on all of our hands.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.