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We'll Get Background Checks When Terrorists Go To Gun Shows

Matt Pressberg |
April 18, 2013 | 8:26 p.m. PDT


Americans are happy to give up liberties out of fear of terrorism. (redjar/Flickr)
Americans are happy to give up liberties out of fear of terrorism. (redjar/Flickr)
A sitting U.S. congresswoman shot through the head and 20 first-graders gunned down in their classroom is apparently just the price we have to pay to preserve the rights of criminals and the violently mentally ill to buy guns in America.

A Senate bill to extend background checks to gun shows and many private sales, co-sponsored by Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), failed Wednesday to receive the 60 votes needed to break the threat of a filibuster by Republican senators. Over 90 percent of Americans support an expansion of background checks, but Beltway cowardice and the National Rifle Association ensured that this would not happen.

However, as we also saw this week, there is one thing that unites our elected officials around protecting the American people—or at least attempting to. That is, of course, terrorism.

It hardly needs to be said that Americans will go to the ends of the earth to solve Monday’s tragic bombing in Boston and loudly proclaim our steely determination never to let such a thing happen again, but any lessons learned from Wednesday night’s explosion in West, Texas, to say nothing of Sandy Hook et al., will soon be forgotten.

More people will have died in West than in Boston. More will have been injured. More property will have been destroyed. Are we going to step up regulation of chemical plants in Texas and take a look at the ridiculous lack of zoning laws that put so many families in danger of an industrial mishap? I wouldn’t count on it.

We already know what the reaction to the Boston bombings is going to be. We’ll have all kinds of random bag checks and security ordeals at road races from now on, even though this was a one-shot deal predicated on surprise that can no longer be replicated at another marathon.

Boston is an affront to our values and lifestyle, but Sandy Hook is a cost of doing business. There shouldn’t be a difference; both are unacceptable losses of life. It might just take gun violence committed via what we’ve come to regard as a terrorist attack to reframe the conversation on guns and move it forward.

A fair amount of domestic killers, like the young men in Aurora and Tuscon, and the D.C. sniper duo, chose gun violence as their means of attack. Foreign antagonists usually opt for other methods. It might be as simple as someone not from here finding it difficult to truly process just how accessible guns are in civilian American life.

This is a country where it’s often easier to buy a semi-automatic rifle with 100-round drums than it is to put together a crude explosive device. California-born al-Qaida operative Adam Gadahn understood, which is why he advised terrorists to go to gun shows and arm themselves.

Based on what we saw Wednesday, it would appear to take nothing less than a shooting perpetrated by an affiliate of such a group to act in any way to prevent criminals and the violently mentally ill from buying guns.

America tends to fight the last attack and prevent against the last method. We blame boxcutters and Islam more than major intelligence failures for what happened on 9/11. After that terrible day, we banned small knives from carry-on luggage. After the would-be shoe bomber failed, we went with barefoot airport security. After the foiled 2006 plot using liquid explosives to blow up airplanes, we banned full-sized cosmetics.

But after 20 first-graders and six educators were shot dead in their classrooms, and after at least that many are gunned down in Chicago every month, we have done nothing at all. The number of Americans killed by gun violence overwhelms the number victimized in terrorist attacks. But we vow to get to the bottom of terrorism. We can’t even scratch the surface of sensible gun reforms.

Background checks are hardly a panacea. Plenty of murderers steal their guns or buy them on very informal secondary markets. But many of them don’t. Also, the Manchin-Toomey bill explicitly prevented the creation of a federal registry, which many gun owners feared. For what it's worth, I find concerns about federal confiscation silly, but I could foresee it leading to employment discrimination for owning guns in a "liberal bubble" area, akin to being an atheist in Alabama. As someone who will surrender my guns to the feds only from my cold, dead hands, I thought the bill was a soft but useful piece of legislation.

The one thing that has consistently been able to get Americans to give up previously sacred constitutional rights is fear of the current boogeyman. For a long time, that was communism. Now it’s terrorism, often imagined to be perpetrated by Islamist extremists.

Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, both American citizens, were executed by drone strikes without ever being charged with anything. The Patriot Act allows the government to read our emails without a warrant. Guantanamo Bay remains in operation, where detainees, also never charged with a crime, are currently on hunger strike.

This is not the individual liberty our founders wanted. And it’s all because we’re scared to death of marginalized actors who are so misguided that they kill innocent people to supposedly gain support for an issue important enough to merit their extreme actions.

Osama bin Laden was willing to spill American blood for his cause up until he was forcibly removed from the scene. To what extent are the gun lobby and its co-conspirators in Congress willing to do the same for theirs? Sandy Hook and Chicago haven’t moved them. Only a different shade of violence might.

So when our love for guns and fear of 9/11-style terrorism inevitably collide—and it will—we’ll finally see the true power of the N.R.A. and its allies. For a party that often makes a public show of declaring every embryo to be sacred, it seems callous to incur hundreds of avoidable gun deaths every year just to line gun lobbyists’ pockets.

Instead of crony-enriching fear-mongering about jackbooted thugs and terrorist masterminds, Republican senators should try to protect us against a much more realistic threat: a lunatic with a gun.

Read more of Neon Tommy’s coverage of gun control here.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



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