Four gun control bills died upon arrival in Congress this week. That’s not unusual. Whenever the United States suffers a great tragedy, we almost always come together in an inspiring show of strength and harmony. But when guns are involved — and only guns — we ditch the unity and solidarity for rancor and partisanship. It’s depressingly predictable. After each traumatic mass shooting, the impressive database at Mother Jones is updated and Democrats will push a gun control bill. According to the well-worn playbook of Washington politics, the Republicans will counter with a suggestion that more good guys should carry guns. Frank Underwood has a good piece that touches on some of the Republicans’ more extreme claims. Both sides make money off this routine. Gun purchases go through the roof and special interest groups on both sides grow after each atrocity. If anything, as Paul Begala, a top advisor in President Bill Clinton’s administration, notes, the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 was driven in large part by the Brady Bill and an assault weapons bill. The last three decades, according to Begala, ran like this when it comes to gun control: liberals earn moral sanctimony, raise money from coastal elites, and throw red meat at their base with each attempt while conservatives win politically in “Fly-Over Country.”
But something unusual happened on the Senate floor on Thursday. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) pushed a bipartisan bill that aimed to stop terrorist suspects on the government’s no-fly list from buying guns. Though the bill did not pass the Senate, it did survive a motion to table the bill and garnered 52 votes. While 60 votes are needed to advance the measure, both Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) were two absent legislators who likely would have voted yes. In addition to Collins, seven fellow Republicans supported the legislation including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the most conservative members of the GOP.
Graham’s support for the bill was revealing. A hawk against Islamic terror, Graham framed gun control as a question of national security. “Eventually this problem will get addressed again one of two ways: We find a breakthrough which I will seek, or there will be another terrorist attack which will bring us right back to this issue,” he said, adding “I hope we can do it without another terrorist attack.”
The gun control debate has been a pillar of U.S. politics since at least the 1934 National Firearms Act was passed. But beyond the constitutional arguments regarding the extent to which firearms can be regulated, guns have been viewed almost exclusively through the lens of homicides. This misses the huge correlation between suicide rates and the volume of guns in circulation, a far bigger public policy concern than homicides, much less mass shootings.
But the specter of gun control as a national security concern is new and it will only grow in the coming years. Omar Mateen, the shooter behind the Orlando slaughter, was the subject of two FBI investigations. In both instances, despite Mateen’s explicit support for Islamic radical groups and affinity for violence, the Bureau did not charge him. Upon retroactively reviewing the prior investigations, FBI Director James Comey defended his investigators and said they hadn’t missed anything. Our First Amendment rights are sufficiently robust that individuals who have been radicalized online can support the Islamic State’s successes and call for sharia law to prevail in the United States without being prosecuted.
If that’s the case, some scholars such as Eric Posner have argued for trimming the First Amendment. They claim that Congress should pass a law prohibiting Americans from accessing websites that glorify or encourage Islamic radicalism. For many who think that’s a dangerous case to make when the line between politics and radicalism can be thin on the margins, we’re left with a discomforting reality: as Rukmini Callimachi poses in the New York Times, “how do you stop a future terrorist when the only evidence is a thought?”
This is particularly true when the Islamic State are calling for their sympathizers in the United States to not join them in Iraq and Syria, where they have been suffering a string of defeats, but launch such attacks at home where gun control laws remain lax. Just a week before the Orlando attack, Comey told reporters that the FBI were investigating roughly 1,000 cases of Americans who either tried to leave the homeland to join the Islamic State or provided material support to the organization in some other capacity. Even if we make the charitable assumptions that the FBI knows about every would-be terrorist and not all of these suspects are as radicalized as Mateen, we can safely assume that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of would-be lone wolves in the United States sharpening their proverbial swords.
There’s no one policy that will insulate us from the threat of radical jihadism. The Islamic State is at war with us even though Congress still hasn’t declared an Authorization for the Use of Military Force tailored for them. As much as Orlando breaks our hearts, we shouldn’t be surprised it happened. We are at war and this enemy has the capability and willingness to not only recruit at home but encourage their fighters to utilize the same Bill of Rights that allows you or me to speak freely or wield a firearm. The law enforcement and intelligence community will be calling for a suite of new tools including enhanced surveillance capabilities to preempt these attacks. But as long as the First and Second Amendments remain as broadly unregulated as they currently stand, attacks like Orlando aren’t beyond the realm of possibility.
This post doesn’t advocate for the abolition or even the necessary curtailment of either amendments. But we should all recognize that the gun control debate will require another layer of complexity. Tragedies often cajole us into acting impulsively and setting in motion bad laws that can take a generation to reverse. But as we reckon with the next chapter of the Global War on Terrorism, we need to admit that there is a new cost to maintaining our current interpretation of the Constitution. If our law enforcement officials remain vigilant (and lucky), let us pray that this is a bearable and infrequent cost. But it is not difficult to imagine that the U.S. public’s attitude towards gun control and the predictable terrain that characterizes gun control in U.S. politics will shift if Democrats start framing gun control as a national security problem. Graham, who is widely respected for his foreign policy chops and known more for his hardline against Islamic terrorism, has already adopted that frame.