After Orlando, let’s get logical about guns

The Observer editorial board

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer holds an “Orlando United” T-shirt Thursday while greeting President Barack Obama.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer holds an “Orlando United” T-shirt Thursday while greeting President Barack Obama. AFP/Getty Images

There’s been movement this week in the U.S. Senate on a pair of sensible gun control measures. It’s not a lot of movement, mind you, but it’s enough to ask lawmakers why they can’t logically do more.

Here’s what’s happening: Senate Democrats, after a nearly 15-hour filibuster, persuaded Republicans on Wednesday to hold votes on two gun-related amendments that will be attached to a spending bill. The measures, which are being negotiated, would prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing guns and expand background checks at gun shows and for online sales.

That the amendments are getting a vote is progress in itself. Republicans know Americans support universal background checks and blocking gun sales to suspected terrorists, but Republicans also are beholden to the NRA, which has resisted both measures.

The difference this week, of course, is the massacre of 49 people Sunday at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Although the Orlando shooter wasn’t currently on a watch list, his purchase of an assault-style weapon illustrates how easy it is for a lone-wolf ISIS sympathizer to get armed for a similar shooting spree.

Terrorist groups have noticed. “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” an Al Qaeda spokesman said in a 2011 recruitment video that encouraged the purchase of weapons at gun shows. “What are you waiting for?”

Lawmakers can make such purchases more difficult by giving the FBI the ability to prevent gun sales to people it believes might engage in terrorism. Yes, the government’s terror watch list is imperfect; some on it have no links to terrorism. That’s why at least one bill this week – from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein – allows those people to challenge their status quickly in federal court.

But let’s take the watch-list gun bill to the next logical step. As we learned from San Bernardino and Orlando, ISIS sympathizers aren’t always on watch lists. If we want to keep assault-style weapons out of the hands of acknowledged threats, don’t we want to keep all terrorists from having easy access to the same destructive weapons?

For that matter, don’t we also want to keep those weapons out of the hands of someone with a mental illness? What about people who suffer from mental illness but haven’t yet been diagnosed and entered into a medical database?

If lawmakers want to better protect Americans from gun massacres, they need to do more than just close the so-called terror gap with gun purchases.

They need to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales, so that people legally barred from gun ownership (such as felons and the mentally ill) can’t buy weapons.

They need to ban high-capacity magazines, as some states have already done.

Finally, they need to ban assault-style weapons, which have no useful purpose in civilian hands.

Americans agree with all this, and parts of it overwhelmingly. We want to be safe from those who intend to mow down innocent people. It doesn’t matter if those shooters are on a government watch list. It shouldn’t matter to lawmakers.