Donald Trump raised eyebrows on the right when he tweeted on Wednesday, “I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.” This position is not only at odds with the NRA, but the party of which he’s the presumptive nominee. But it’s consistent with the idea, popular among conservatives this week in the wake of the Orlando massacre, that a violent death perpetuated in the name of Islam is somehow more grave than others.
Consider a National Review piece on Wednesday addressed to “anti-gun liberals.” David French, the conservative writer and erstwhile Donald Trump rival offers the following take on the Orlando massacre: “If you want to stop jihad, gun control is the least effective mechanism.” He expands on this thought with “a bit of math”:
It turns out that less than 1 percent of Americans who’ve died in the war on terror fell to guns purchased in America. If you narrow the inquiry to only those American deaths in the United States, the number is less than 3 percent. Jihadists will kill with boxcutters, pressure cookers, knives, guns, cars, airplanes — with anything they can possibly use to end a human life.
This “anti-gun liberal” has no beef with that analysis. Islam-inspired terrorism is indeed a phenomenon; as someone who went to high school next to what were, until shortly after my graduation, the Twin Towers, this is neither new information nor information about which I require much persuading. But the question of whether gun control would prevent terrorism—and French isn’t alone on the right with his take—is sneaky and misleading.
Getting rid of certain guns wouldn’t prevent all terrorism, though it could mitigate the damage. But the purpose of gun control isn’t solely to reduce terrorist violence, but violence generally, of which terrorism—radical Islamist or otherwise—is a tiny part. And gun control can work in conjunction with fighting ISIS; they’re not mutually exclusive position. You can advocate for both, and indeed the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party does exactly that.
If “jihad” were the main cause of violence in America, then it would be imprecise to propose gun control as the principle solution. And it would be naïve to look at the Orlando tragedy as entirely distinct from ISIS-inspired violence in Europe and elsewhere. But in the American context, which also happens to be the one over which American lawmakers and the American public have the most control, gun violence is simply a greater danger than self-radicalized lone wolf shooters. The “anti-gun liberal” position, as much as one can generalize, is that gun violence is a problem regardless of what inspires it.
The left is in a bind where saying absolutely anything about guns, other than that “radical Islamic terrorists” perhaps shouldn’t have them, inspires outrage on the right. This—as well as the nature of this latest mass shooting, but hardly all of them—leads proponents of gun control to cite terrorism. That, in turn, leads the right to reframe the discussion as one about how best to prevent terrorism—and to point out, correctly, that there are terrorist attacks even in places, like Paris, with stricter gun laws.
This is a weak gotcha, one that’s technically, selectively true, but oblivious to actual risk-assessment and how to keep Americans safe. Men like the Orlando killer will probably always find a way, meaning that the very cases that inspire outrage about America’s gun violence problem are not only unrepresentative, but also are likely to happen regardless of the measures taken in their wake. But the measures themselves remain urgently necessary for all the more representative, tragically everyday instances.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s nearly 15-hour filibuster may not lead anywhere immediately in terms of legislation, but it’s a significant step towards removing gun violence off the list of untouchable subjects. As for how much this week’s gun debate connects with the crime that inspired it, does that matter? Chances are, neither a more hawkish approach to ISIS nor an assault weapons ban would have prevented this specific massacre. But such a ban—and other proposed policies that have resurfaced after the Orlando tragedy, like universal background checks—would reduce gun deaths in America, thus making a significant dent in the number of senseless deaths in America, period. It’s time for the entire country to value those lives as much as the ones lost to terrorism.