GUNS AND TERROR

Syed Rizwan Farook walked out of a conference room at
the Inland Regional Center, in San Bernardino, twice
last Wednesday. His first departure was abrupt but not extraordinary;
his colleagues at the county Department of
Public Health, who had recently thrown a baby shower for
him, continued to sit through a series of morning meetings,
with the promise of holiday snacks ahead. Farook returned,
with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, and by the time they left they
had shot thirty-five people, fourteen of whom died. In the
frenzy, the fire alarm went off and the sprinkler system was
activated, so that when the police arrived it was as if they’d
happened upon the aftermath of a storm. On a table, they
found three pipe bombs, rigged to a bright-yellow remote-control
toy car.
The couple had driven away in an S.U.V. stocked with
two AR-15-style semiautomatic assault rifles, two 9-mm.
semiautomatic handguns, and fourteen hundred rounds of
ammunition for the rifles and two hundred for the handguns.
After Farook and Malik were killed, in a firefight in
which two officers were wounded, the police searched the
house where they lived with their six-month-old daughter
and found about five thousand rounds of ammunition, another
rifle, and twelve pipe bombs. The
authorities said that all the guns, manufactured
by Smith & Wesson, Llama,
and DPMS, were bought legally, either
by Farook or by a friend.
The Inland Regional Center provides
services to people with developmental
disabilities, and at first there
was shock at the idea that the center’s
clients might have been a target. Then
the news that civil servants had been
killed made the situation seem, perversely,
almost normal; some people
hate the government, and in America
hatred of any sort is never far from
gun violence. Five days earlier, Robert
Dear had walked into a Planned
Parenthood health center in Colorado
Springs, similarly armed with multiple weapons, and killed
three people. By one estimate, there has been more than
one mass shooting—defined as an incident in which at
least four people are shot—for every day of this year. According
to the Brady Campaign, seven children are killed
by guns each day. After the Newtown school shooting, in
2012, there was a push to get a pair of modest bills through
Congress—a ban on some assault weapons, the closing of
background-check loopholes—but it failed. Gun laws are,
on the whole, more lax now than they were on the day the
twenty children and eight adults were shot dead. There are
as many guns in private hands in America as there are people.
The barriers to atrocity are low.
By Friday, law-enforcement officials had found a Facebook
post that they attributed to Malik, pledging loyalty to
ISIS. In a political culture less distorted by Second Amendment
absolutism, this might have been a turning point for
Republican lawmakers: Why not at least make it more difficult
for potential terrorists to get guns? After the shooting,
President Obama said that although there would always be
people who wanted to cause harm, there were basic steps that
might make it “a little harder for them to do it, because right
now it’s just too easy.” In an interview
with CBS, he noted that a person on
the no-fly list “could go into a store right
now in the United States and buy a firearm
and there’s nothing that we can do
to stop them”; on Thursday, a hastily
prepared measure to address that died
in the Senate.
Mostly, the Republican Presidential
candidates seemed to see the discussion
of terrorism as a route away from the
topic of guns. “The first impulse I would
have, rather than talking about gun control,
is to make sure that we protect the
homeland—and last week the metadata
program was ended,” Jeb Bush said on
Fox News, referring to new, minor limits
on the N.S.A.’s access to telephone
records. The same day, at a candidates’ forum held by the Republican
Jewish Coalition, Ted Cruz said that the San Bernardino
shooting, coming in the wake of the terror attack in
Paris, “underscores that we are at a time of war.” As Cruz saw
it, the problem was the passivity of the President, an “unmitigated
socialist who won’t stand up and defend the United
States of America,” and who “operates as an apologist for radical
Islamic terrorists.” Donald Trump complained at the
R.J.C. forum that Obama wouldn’t mention “radical Islamic
terrorism,” adding, “He refuses to say it, there’s something
going on with him that we don’t know about.”
The pro-gun side swerves between utter complacency
about gun violence and a call for war on all fronts against
terror. (“As if somehow terrorists care about what our gun
laws are,” Marco Rubio said on Friday.) But something other
than a lapse in logic is at work here. Warnings about terror
and warnings about the government taking away people’s
guns both play to a certain anxiety. Trump, the Republican
front-runner, tells audiences that they have been tricked and
left vulnerable, both economically and at moments when,
he says, as in Paris last month, “nobody had guns but the
bad guys.” Ben Carson has suggested that the Holocaust
could have been prevented if it had been easier to get a gun
in Berlin. Cruz has said that unfettered gun ownership isn’t
just for hunting or home protection; it is “the ultimate check
against governmental tyranny.”
To the extent that the Republican candidates recognize
that the common denominator of mass shootings is guns,
their answer is more guns—in the hands of everyone from
preachers to Paris bartenders—and more fear, sown just as
carelessly. Neither is a wise approach to addressing the real
threat of terrorist attacks, whether homegrown or directed
from abroad. Given the demagoguery that has characterized
the G.O.P. campaign, with talk of religious databases,
there are reasons for concern that, in the wake of San Bernardino,
American Muslim communities will be subjected
to bigotry and harassment. Already, during the past several
months, there has been a spike in violence directed at mosques.
This is terror, too.
What stops mass shootings from seeming routine is, ultimately,
the particular stories of the people who died. Aurora
Godoy and her husband eloped in 2012; she leaves behind
a two-year-old son. Tin Nguyen was planning her
wedding and the life she and her fiancé would share. Larry
Daniel Kaufman’s boyfriend dropped him off at his job at
the I.R.C.’s coffee shop that morning. Michael Wetzel, a father
of six, coached a soccer team of five-year-old girls that,
according to the Los Angeles Times, “had a princess theme.”
The pipe bombs, which Farook and Malik appear to have
assembled themselves, thankfully did not detonate, but the
guns functioned just as they were built to.
—Amy Davidson


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