Opinion: Terrorism? Angry worker? Whichever, guns were central to the carnage

<em>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</em>

Here’s something to contemplate. If Wednesday’s carnage in San Bernardino turns out to have been the result of an international terrorist conspiracy, like the devastating attacks in Paris, Americans can rightly expect Congress and the president to work together to craft an immediate and decisive response. But if the killings turn out to have been rooted in a workplace dispute, well, don’t hold your breath.

The United States seems to view foreign-tied acts of terror through a different prism than the daily parade of mass shootings. Terrorism is a propelling fear, and the focus of billions of dollars in security measures, yet it is a relatively rare occurrence — presumably in large part because of the security measures. Yet mass shootings in the workplace, at school and at homes are taken as a given, a sad price to pay for our ability to own military-style guns.

Do we have our priorities wrong? Are we squarely facing the right threats?


The 9/11 terror attacks showed unequivocally that international terrorism poses a serious threat to the United States. But even though the deaths that result from decades of everyday mass shootings far exceed those from terrorism, they quickly become local issues. Mental health issues. Bad parenting issues. Everything but what they really are — a persistent and deadly threat to American citizens that has endured for years.

As President Obama pointed out after the killings of nine people at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1, the nation has blinders when it comes to the threat among us.

“We spend over $1 trillion and pass countless laws and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so,” Obama said then. “And yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”

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Obama was referring to NRA-propelled restrictions that have kept the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence as a public health issue, though that is exactly what that violence is. As has been widely reported, there have been more mass shootings — defined as those in which at least four people are wounded — than there have been days this year. Hours before the San Bernardino killings, someone killed one person and wounded three others in Savannah, Ga. Last week, on the same day that Robert Lewis Dear allegedly killed three people and wounded nine others in Colorado Springs, Colo. — a crime that few are talking about just days later — two people were killed and two others wounded in a shootout in a Sacramento restaurant.

Yet we do little. Except lament the tragedy, pray for the victims and bemoan the fact that nobody does anything.

This isn’t a call for overreaction. We need to carefully balance public safety needs with respect for civil liberties. But sensible gun control exists easily on that fulcrum. The law of the land, regrettably, is that the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution protects an individual’s right to own a gun. But not a blanket right to own any kind of gun, and the San Bernardino killings showed yet again the kind of fast, massive carnage that comes with firing military-style weapons with magazines of cartridges at defenseless victims. That such guns can be sold legally to civilians is an atrocious idea, and renewing the federal assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004 would be a good place to start attacking the problem.

Adopting sensible gun control measures is a prudent, necessary step even if it turns out the San Bernardino killings were an act of terrorism, or some sort of hybrid of religious extremism and workplace disgruntlement (the guns used reportedly were bought legally but, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives said late Thursday, were later illegally modified). And if the roots are in faith or foreign nations, the government should react deliberately, and with an eye on that balance between security and liberty. In the aftermath of the Paris shootings, political and social rhetoric reached an appalling low, with prominent American politicians suggesting a religious litmus test for who should be allowed refugee status. Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said he’d be open to the idea of keeping a database of Muslims in the country.

This is not where the nation should go. We need to look at the threats to our safety — all of them — wisely, and pursue policies that are proportionate to those threats. And make sure that, in the process, we don’t lose sight of who we are as a nation. But we must, indeed, act and not let this latest atrocity fade into memory.

[Update, 5:40 a.m., December 4: This post and headline have been updated to reflect new information that the rifles used in the shooting were bought legally, but later illegally modified]

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