Here’s How Terrorism Is Scrambling America’s Gun Debate
Republican leaders argue that Americans have an inherent right to guns. But what happens when those guns are used in terror attacks like Orlando?
The massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub by a man pledging loyalty to the Islamic State is giving Democrats a potentially potent new strategy in the long-running and bitter fight over gun control, shifting the terms of the debate from abstract constitutional arguments to confronting the grim reality of terrorists getting their hands on military-style assault weapons -- and the urgent question of whether the government should do more to stop them.
The massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub by a man pledging loyalty to the Islamic State is giving Democrats a potentially potent new strategy in the long-running and bitter fight over gun control, shifting the terms of the debate from abstract constitutional arguments to confronting the grim reality of terrorists getting their hands on military-style assault weapons — and the urgent question of whether the government should do more to stop them.
That shift has forced GOP leaders to navigate between their presumptive nominee for president, a powerful lobby, and an unexpected new political adversary: some of the nation’s highest-profile retired generals, who are pressing for closing the legal loopholes that could allow would-be terrorists to legally acquire military-grade assault weapons.
The political challenges facing the party were evident Tuesday when a bipartisan group of 9 senators — four Democrats, one Independent who caucuses with Democrats, and four Republicans — unveiled the “Terrorist Firearms Prevention Act of 2016,” which would give the attorney general more latitude to bar gun sales to people who appear on the two government lists. Original sponsors included Sen. Kelly Ayotte, (R-N.H.), one of a handful of vulnerable Republicans whose reelection prospects have been threatened by the polarizing effect of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.
Beyond Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have vowed to continue the fight for greater restrictions on “weapons of war,” part of an attempt to keep the terms of the gun debate focused squarely on issues of national security — and front and center in the 2016 presidential election.
On Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), who has emerged as a leading Democratic voice on gun control, said “we’ve got to make this clear, constant case that Republicans have decided to sell weapons to ISIS.” Murphy led a 15-hour filibuster last week that forced Republican leaders to put an array of gun control measures to a vote, but each one went down in defeat.
The Orlando tragedy has already scrambled traditional political alliances, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the general election.
The Republican Party’s long-running opposition to most gun reforms is reinforced by the powerful National Rifle Association, which for years has generously backed primarily GOP lawmakers who have blocked stricter gun control efforts.
The NRA and its political allies are using a pair of separate but related arguments to block the push for new measures. First, they assert that barring gun sales to people on the government’s terror watch list, or its narrower “no-fly” list, infringes on the Second Amendment.
They also argue that the measures would be a violation of the right to due process because those on the lists — and thus potentially barred from purchasing weapons — can’t challenge the designations because they often don’t even know they’ve been flagged by the government. That aligns the NRA with some liberal groups like the ACLU, which has described the watch list system as “unfair,” “discriminatory,” and “error-prone.”
“The watch list, we have people on there who even we don’t know who they are,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr, (R-N.C.) told Foreign Policy after Monday’s votes.
Many Americans seem to disagree: a CNN/ORC poll released Monday found that U.S. voters’ overwhelming support for preventing those on federal authorities’ radar screens or on the more narrow “no-fly” list from purchasing weapons has only increased since the attack. Eighty-five percent support banning those on federal watch lists from purchasing guns. Surprisingly, those measures are even more popular with Republicans, 90 percent of whom support the gun control efforts.
And yet the American public traditionally has traditionally trusted the GOP more on national security, making Republicans particularly sensitive to Democratic attempts to portray them as weak on terrorism in the wake of Orlando. That means the nearly two dozen recently retired generals and admirals advocating for stronger gun control on national security grounds make for powerful political opponents.
Half of the 23-member advisory board for “Veterans Coalition for Common Sense” are three- and four-star retired generals and admirals, including retired Gens. Stanley McChrystal, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and head of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, and David Petraeus, the best-known general of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, who served as head of the CIA before resigning because of a sex scandal.
“Today, some of our politicians and the people who back them seem to promote a culture of gun ownership that does not conform with what I learned in the military,” McChrystal wrote in a New York Times op-ed last Thursday. “Our communities should not feel like war zones.”
Also joining the group is Gen. Michael Hayden, a staunch Republican who formerly led both the NSA and the CIA. In a statement, Hayden said “the shooting in Orlando tragically illustrates that gun violence is a real and persistent threat to our American community. We can and we must take steps to prevent future atrocities while upholding our Second Amendment rights.”
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen has also joined Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded in 2014 by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with $50 million in seed money. Mullen, reportedly Bloomberg’s top pick for VP, seriously considered joining his ticket and was vetted to do so, but never agreed to come on board, and Bloomberg ultimately declined to run.
Not part of the group is retired Adm. William McRaven, a career Navy SEAL who lead the Joint Special Operations Command at the time of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But in 2015, as chancellor of the University of Texas system, McRaven strongly opposed a bill that would allow students and faculty to carry concealed handguns into classrooms.
“I’m a guy that loves my guns,” McRaven said at the time of the debate. “I have all sorts of guns. I just don’t think bringing guns on campus is going to make us any safer. If you’ve ever been shot at, which I have, then you have an appreciation for what a gun can do.” The Texas legislature eventually passed the bill, despite his objections.
Trump has also blundered into the gun control debate in recent days, at first calling a meeting with the NRA over closing the terrorist loophole but later using a Friday rally to say that the Orlando attack could have been stopped if clubgoers in the darkened room had guns at the ready. “And one of the people in that room happened to have it and goes ‘boom, boom,’ you know, that would have been a beautiful sight, folks,” Trump described.
That went too far even for the NRA, whose chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, told ABC Sunday that “no one thinks that people should go into a nightclub drinking and carrying firearms,” adding that such a belief “defies common sense. It also defies the law.”
Photo credit: Orlando Sentinel / Contributor
Molly O’Toole was a reporter at Foreign Policy from 2016-2017.
Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
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