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Last Sunday’s massacre by a lone gunman at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., has riveted worldwide attention on the vulnerability of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, radical Islam, home-grown terrorism in the U.S., gun control and weaknesses in the U.S. security apparatus. While the attack will likely encourage clubs and other public venues to strengthen security, experts predict it could also galvanize politicians to pass the requisite federal legislation to prevent civilians from owning weapons of mass destruction.
The Orlando shooting ranks as the most deadly mass shooting ever in the U.S. and the worst terror attack since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Omar Mateen, 29, born in the U.S. to Afghani parents, laughed occasionally as he fired from an AR-15 assault rifle and other weapons in the packed Pulse nightclub, leaving 49 dead and 53 injured before police shot him dead.
Horrific as the Orlando shooting was, many Americans still see guns as necessary, said Robert Meyer, a Wharton marketing professor who is also co-director of the school’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. “Half of America believes you shouldn’t infringe [upon] those [gun] rights,” he said. Every time an incident like what happened in Orlando occurs, half the nation calls for gun control and for a mass sweeping of the five million assault rifles already in public hands, while the other half wants guns, arguing that it needs them for their protection, he added.
For University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, the Orlando shooting touches a personal chord. “Look, I’m a gay man,” said Wolff. “I’m a tenured professor at an Ivy League law school. I walk through every single day of my life having to be conscious of where it’s safe for me to hold hands with a partner and where it’s not, and where I’m going to feel conspicuous if I’m affectionate with somebody that I’m dating. That is just a part of what it is to be a gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender person in the U.S. today.”
For Wolff, the shooting has also shattered the hopes of the LGBT community “that bars and clubs are places of safety and places of acceptance” where they could feel secure. “A mass murder like this is an unspeakable horror under any circumstances,” he said. “For it to happen in a place that is such a singularly important place of refuge for a lot of LGBT people is just utterly, utterly devastating.”
Meyer and Wolff discussed the policy actions needed in the wake of the Orlando shooting on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Both Meyer and Wolff agreed that the country’s existing laws and security apparatus don’t provide the necessary protection against such attacks. Mateen had been on the watch list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a couple of years, and had been interviewed on at least two separate occasions — and yet was able to buy weapons. “This is a person for whom supposedly our best defenses on preventing this failed,” said Meyer.
Case for Federal Action
It didn’t matter that the Pulse bar was a gun-free zone under state law. Wolff maintained that the U.S. needs federal legislation to take military grade weapons off the market and out of the hands of civilians. “There is no justification for people to be able to buy a military grade semi-automatic rifle that is designed not for home protection or hunting but for killing large numbers of people in a short amount of time,” he said.
“There is no justification for people to be able to buy a military grade semi-automatic rifle that is designed not for home protection or hunting but for killing large numbers of people in a short amount of time.” –Tobias Barrington Wolff
Wolff referred to President Barack Obama’s PBS Newshour town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., on June 2. In response to a question about gun control, Obama cited one case where the FBI knows of a person who is an Islamic State sympathizer but can nonetheless buy a military grade weapon — and the federal government cannot prevent that. “That state of affairs is the product of a powerful, organized gun lobby, and politicians – most of them Republican – who have decided they are going to kowtow to that lobby,” said Wolff.
News scoops have also raised the level of public concern over gun ownership. Two days after the Orlando shooting, Helen Ubinas, a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News newspaper wrote that she was able to buy a similar assault rifle in Philadelphia within seven minutes.
Wolff found no merit in the argument that more semi-automatic rifles in the hands of more people would somehow ensure that there would be fewer killings. He also called for steps to make the Latino LGBT community in the U.S. feel safer.
Meyer agreed with Wolff. “The idea that we need to have bans on assault weapons and greatly control gun ownership … is a no-brainer,” he said. “But the reality is we are not going to get from here to there.” He felt a more immediate challenge is to provide the requisite assurance of safety to people who go to venues such as a nightclub.
As a consequence of the Orlando attacks, Meyer predicted that clubs around the world would show “a sudden surge of energy being put into protection.” However, he noted that “laxness gets reinforced a lot more than vigilance” notwithstanding the presence of guards and metal detectors. “It’s a miracle that a tragedy hasn’t occurred at a stadium given how lax the security is,” he said.
Wolff advocated national-level legislation for gun control, while noting that some states such as California have stronger laws than others on assault weapons. Open borders within the country that allow free movement of people frustrate state-specific laws, he explained.
“[If] the Newtown shootings [with] children being slaughtered wasn’t enough to galvanize the center and the left to do something very aggressive and move the needle, I’m not so sure what can.” –Robert Meyer
Meyer noted that violent crime has been on the decline in the U.S. since the early 1990s. “One of the challenges is that the perception of that is not the same,” he said, citing recent polls where 60% of Americans polled felt violent crime had increased. “At the end of the day, taking assault weapons out of people’s hands is the only sensible thing to do.”
Meyer said that the risk exists of Orlando-type shootings occurring in future, thanks to “very limited control of gun ownership and increased radicalization of certain factions.” At the same time, he hoped that the growing public awareness of such threats would make people and security forces more vigilant. He hoped that would accompany legislation to control civilian ownership of certain types of weapons.
Those hopes don’t run deep. Wolff worried that the gun lobby has prevented precautionary and corrective steps being taken. Meyer was also pessimistic. He bemoaned the lack of suitable corrective action after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children aged between six and seven, and six adult staff members were killed. “[If] the Newtown shootings [with] children being slaughtered wasn’t enough to galvanize the center and the left to do something very aggressive and move the needle, I’m not so sure what can.”