How Might We Prevent Another Orlando?

So despite my reluctance to dive into this while the heat is high, a few folks asked for my opinion on how to prevent shootings like Orlando, so I'm going to take a crack at, at least, what we need to be looking at to figure it out. I will attempt to be sensitive and promise that my intentions are to sincerely assess the issue from a problem-solving perspective, though I'll admit I'm quite skeptical of just about everyone's political approaches here.

There's a lot of terrible information and really lousy problem-solving that swirls around when this stuff happens. People of course get very emotional and have a knee-jerk reaction, and want to see some action. Let's see how current proposals stand up. From the right, we have "something something terrorism" (Trump going so far as to say that Obama is aiding ISIS)--there doesn't seem to be much of a plan. The other is tightening gun control in two ways: banning assault weapons, and making sure people on the terror watch list aren't able to buy guns.

First, My Pet Peeve: "Assault Weapons"

So many people believe "assault weapons" are fully automatic--that is, you hold the trigger, and it fires a bunch of bullets. This isn't true: assault weapons are the same as other semi-automatic weapons, but are defined (federally) as having 2 of 3 of the following features: a collapsible stock, a flash suppressor (which just means it's less bright when you shoot it), and a pistol grip.

They're certainly not assault rifles, which are fully automatic. There's been gobs of bad reporting on this: even the Washington Post said Mateen was carrying an assault rifle, which is just patently false and is incredibly bad journalism. Assault rifles are completely illegal for citizens to own in the United States. Why can't the Washington Post get this right? Is it straight-up intentional misinformation (known more colloquially as "lying") or incredibly bad fact-finding? 

Is it important that we get these definitions right? Absolutely. We need to understand what we're dealing with if we're going to be problem-solving. 

A Reminder of Scale

The Orlando shooting is just mind-bogglingly, unimaginably horrible in a way that I will do no justice trying to describe. 

When we're talking murders in the US perpetuated with guns, one thing to keep in mind is that statistically almost all of them are not mass shootings, not perpetuated with assault weapons (that number averages about 50/year fairly consistently), and largely involve inner-city crime. In 2014, there were about 8200 murders with firearms, of which 5600 are confirmed to be perpetrated with pistols

I bring up this reminder just to give everyone something to consider about relative scale and priority in reducing American murders and violent crime. 

With those two digressions, on to the proposals.

Reducing the Threat of Terrorism

So Mateen pledged his allegiance to ISIS and claimed that he was attacking the United States because they were "bombing my country" (Mateen is American but is of Afghan heritage). There is some tangential evidence he was also homophobic, but there's even more evidence that he himself was gay; he apparently visited Pulse 25 times and probably had gay dating site accounts, so who knows what was going on in his head there. He was loosely connected to a suicide bomber that traveled from the US to Syria, and was twice under FBI investigation, but both times the investigation dismissed him.

One proposal is to more quickly finish off ISIS. I'll say first that if there was no ISIS in the world, it'd be a much better place. But would it stop people like Mateen? Personally, I doubt it: even if ISIS is militarily defeated, there will still be Wahhabist and Salafist elements out in the world, pushing propaganda over the Internet. Mateen didn't come from the Middle East and didn't radicalize by traveling there: he just read stuff online. 

So far, it doesn't seem like ISIS has successfully sent any agents to the United States to conduct terror attacks: both Orlando and San Bernadino were born in the US (though how much of Wahhabism they had studied and understand is something beyond me). 

Right now, ISIS is focused on trying to create and hold onto a Caliphate. Long-term, if ISIS entrenched itself, would it be an international threat? Almost certainly. Getting rid of it is important--and incredibly complicated. But I don't think the fact that ISIS still occupies parts of Syria and Iraq had any influence here.

The other proposal is to make sure Syrian refugees don't enter the United States, or temporarily (?) prevent Muslims from entering the country. Similarly, Mateen was born in the US, as were the San Bernadino shooters. So it would have had no impact on those cases.

Right now I have no way of assessing the threat of Syrian refugees (how many, if any, are ISIS agents). But ultimately, it's at least a slightly different can of worms.

Gun Control

I urge caution whenever someone says, "sensible gun control" without making a clear link between a proposed solution and how it would play out in the field. I worry that it's a political term--"this is sensible gun control" may be intended to prevent anyone from having the political space to question it.

So far I see three proposals in reaction to Orlando:

  1. Ban assault weapons, because they are "weapons of war."
  2. Reduce magazine size to 10 bullets
  3. Prevent people on the terror watch-list from being able to buy guns

So my personal take after a lot of research is that assault weapons aren't particularly more powerful or deadly than other semi-automatic rifles. They use the same caliber rounds, and most of the power comes from the size of the round (its mass) and the gunpowder in the round (which gives it its velocity).

I actually talked to my friend Hunter about this, who knows more about guns than I do, and he was able to tell me a few ways in which some rifles are more deadly than others. Excuse me if I butcher any of this. 

Some rifles like the AR-15 have a light reloading mechanism, which means slightly more energy goes into propelling the bullet and slightly less going into reloading the gun (in short, a semi-automatic weapon uses the power of the gunpowder explosion to push back a spring-loaded thing that then creates space for a round in the magazine to enter, and then that springs back to position the bullet in front of the hammer)--this means slightly higher velocity. That said, an assault weapons ban wouldn't stop manufacturers from making lighter weapons.

He also mentioned that rifles like the AR-15 have low recoil, which means they're somewhat more accurate. This also isn't covered by an assault weapons ban (and it's a bit hard to make a law that requires a certain amount of recoil or a sabotaged accuracy). 

Finally, he said that the adjustable stock allows one to operate more freely in a cramped environment, because the overall length of the gun can get shorter, which may have been relevant in the Pulse shooting. That, at least, is covered by the assault weapons ban. 

A pistol grip is designed to make the gun easier to hold and operate, as well as access the safety very easily. Banning this may also have had an effect in Orlando, and is covered in the assault weapons ban.

Would these have prevented Orlando? Certainly not--Mateen could have gotten a different semi-automatic rifle. They're similarly powerful and have the same fire rate as assault weapons. My assessment is that banning weapons with pistol grips and extendable stocks may have had a marginal effect on the number of people that died, but I'm not sure.

On magazine size: it's definitely the case that some of the recent mass shootings in the United States involved high-capacity magazines, of 15-30+ rounds each. Mateen likely (but we don't know) had 30-round magazines in his Sig Sauer MCX (not an AR-15, as commonly believed). This does mean he reloaded at least 3 times (as he shot 102 people), but probably more, as a 90%+ accuracy rate is pretty unprecedented.

So in this case, would fewer people have died if magazine size was restricted to 10 rounds? Perhaps. Life may have been somewhat harder if he had to reload three times as often, but we weren't in there. We do know that the Tuscon, AZ attacker was taken down while he was reloading, but I know of no other cases in which a mass shooter was stopped while reloading. So we can assume that maybe someone in Pulse could have stopped Mateen while he was reloading if he was doing it more often, but we just don't know. The manufacture of these magazines would be prevented by the assault weapons ban. 

So depending on how things played out, some people may have been saved if Mateen had to reload more often, but of course a high-capacity magazine ban wouldn't have prevented the attack.

The 2nd Amendment implications seem pretty tight on this, as the US already bans certain kinds of weapons for excessive deadliness (assault rifles or fully automatic anything, grenades and grenade launchers, etc etc). The precedent seems to support that such a ban wouldn't be overturned. 

Finally, we come to the proposal to stop people on the terror watch list from buying guns. President Obama actually talked about this a few days before Orlando at a town hall meeting. He said that he had come from a meeting that morning where he was shown some people on the terror watch list, and he was able to put them on the no-fly list, but wasn't able to stop them from buying guns.

There are two interesting things to say on this. First, neither Mateen nor the San Bernardino shooters were on the terror watch list when they acquired their weapons. So if the President was given that power, it wouldn't have prevented Orlando or San Bernardino, specifically. 

Now, in theory, it could prevent other terrorists from doing the same. That said, I'm not currently aware of any people that were on the terror watch list who carried out attacks with guns they bought while they were on said watch list. So as far as past mass shooting incidents, it doesn't seem like such a law would have had any impact.

But we could of course imagine a scenario in which it has an impact in the future. And it seems pretty intuitive to not let potential terrorists buy guns. There's already broad support in the US for not letting convicted violent criminals or the mentally ill buy guns, so this might seem like a natural extension.

(Nat mentions that perhaps you might not want to prevent them from buying guns if they're on the watch-list, as they then instantly become aware that they're on the watch-list. Same goes for flying.)

So the second thing is the 4th Amendment complication. What some people find disturbing about Obama's speech is that as President, he has the power to prevent people from being able to fly upon suspicion--before they've done anything wrong. There's no oversight, no court, nothing but the opinion of the President to restrict these people's liberty. So the same would be the case for guns. That's a complication we need to take seriously.

But if you're a "give up liberty for a little bit of security" type of person, this may be acceptable. The question is, "how likely is it going to help?" Great question. In theory, someone on the terror watch list could certainly want to kill people and be prevented from doing so by not being able to buy a gun. But then again, in theory, a Syrian refugee could be an ISIS agent and blow up people with homemade explosives like Timothy McVeigh. So it removes a hypothetical threat while giving the President the power to, without accountability, restrict people's liberty. That's something we need to consider seriously.

So How Would We Actually Prevent Orlando?

In all of my research and thinking, I've come to think that the solutions I've seen proposed would not have prevented Orlando from happening. Some proposals might have made it somewhat less deadly, though it's very hard to say how much less deadly. 

If you have someone not on the terror watch list or not a convicted criminal/crazy person, and they have an intent to go kill a lot of people, they can get guns, and they can kill people. Until you ban and successfully remove most guns from the country (remember that there are 280 million of them floating around), someone like Mateen can get his hands on firearms--until then, your only options are to try to limit the number of people killed in the incident.

And if they can't get guns, a sufficiently motivated attacker could of course use all sorts of other improvised weapons and explosives. Many of these may yield a lower casualty count. But if you have someone that's hell-bent on killing people in a free society, will they be able to kill people? The age-old security-liberty trade-off question comes into play. More on that in a future post.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.