Omar Mateen may have committed the worst gun mass murder in U.S. history, but his terrorist act will change little in America.
Occurring as it did six months before the presidential election, politics has gotten in the way of the reflection and deliberation that should be happening.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Congress’ first notable response to the Orlando shootings was a 15-hour filibuster, led by Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. He was pushing for a vote on two pieces of legislation, one for expanded background checks and the other to keep people on the terror watch list from buying guns. As he ended the filibuster, he seemed to have prevailed.
By the next morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out that Republicans had merely conceded that the Senate would vote on two amendments to the appropriations bill for the Commerce, State and Justice departments. There had been no consensus from his side on which amendments they would agree to consider.
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So a vote, but no deal on what it will be for or against. And it very likely will be against what the Democrats want. Senate Democrats even skipped a classified briefing on the Orlando investigation just so they could continue the talkfest.
None of this theater would have occurred if both political parties had been focused on making an impact beyond showboating for their base voters. If they were, the nation would have heard a lot less emotional pontificating and far more thoughtful analysis and study.
The stagnation in Congress allowed the NRA to keep harping that the goal should be to defeat radical Islam, as if it is a spot on the map rather than an ideology propagated all over the world, including the U.S., via the internet.
By midweek, investigators seeking to unravel the Orlando shooter’s motives revealed his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State but could demonstrate no real association with the group. They did uncover a history of domestic violence and what appeared to be his internal conflicts about homosexuality and a range of other factors.
The issue is keeping such a person — the so-called lone wolf — away from the weaponry that allows him to take multiple lives. And that’s gun control.
The fact that Omar Mateen had been on the government’s terror watch list understandably took center stage in the week after the murders. Surely the government has a compelling interest in denying anybody on that list the right to buy weapons.
But those discussions will go nowhere until it can be demonstrated that any such government watch list is accurate and that its management is above suspicion. McClatchy reported that 1.1 million names representing 440,000 people were on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment as of December 2013, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. About 25,000 were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
Another 16,500 are taken off every year. In 2014, that included Mateen, the Orlando shooter.
But government studies have found problems with the list. One report indicated that up to 35 percent of the names shouldn’t have been included. McClatchy’s reporting details a lawsuit that questions how a 4-year-old in California ended up on the list.
Until those sorts of questions are cleared up, groups as different as the NRA and the ACLU will find themselves in the same camp, arguing that government watch lists are unreliable and therefore a threat to people’s constitutional rights. It’s a valid argument. But it’s a fear that can be allayed if efforts are made to improve the lists, to give the FBI and other terrorism investigators the resources to maintain more accurate records, accessible to other relevant agencies, so everyone is hyperfocused on the same goals.
In the case of Mateen, there is also the question of how a person can be investigated intensely, be dropped from the list and then go on to commit the worst act of gun violence in U.S. history.
Study the mentality of mass shooters, be they homegrown loners, self-radicalized or directed by the Islamic State. The red flags are there to see. It’s how we react to those clues and how our laws allow us to respond that is the problem.
What we may well conclude is that a wide range of new attitudes, policies and laws may be necessary to head off such violence. But first we must have sober, good-faith study and debate.