How religion determines if a mass shooter is a terrorist

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A vigil in Thailand shows solidarity with the victims in Orlando.

In the wee hours of June 12, during a period of festivity and camaraderie, 49 people were killed and more than 50 others were injured by bullets fired from a military-grade assault weapon legally purchased by a man who had been a suspected terrorist. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, perpetrated by a US-born Muslim who pledged allegiance to ISIS. But if the killer had been anything other than Muslim, the national conversation in the tragedy’s wake might be much different.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump took the tragedy as an opportunity to pat himself on the back for “being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” Since that widely criticized tweet, most pundits and politicians have characterized shooter Omar Mateen as a terrorist. They did the same for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and San Bernardino killers Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook. But not all mass shooters are called terrorists. Those with names like James Holmes, Adam Lanza and Jared Loughner, for instance, usually aren’t.

For a crime to qualify as an act of terrorism, it must have some political or religious aspect. This could qualify Mateen, a suspected religious extremist who targeted a gay nightclub. But the portrait may not be that simple. Those who knew Mateen described him as troubled by his own sexuality, socially awkward and not especially religious. Like other lone wolf killers, his anger at the world may have been at not fitting in and his targets may have been selected out of jealousy.

We may never know precisely what motivated him. But Jared Loughner shot 19 people in Tucson, including a United States Representative and a judge, and did so for explicitly political reasons. Same goes for Dylann Roof, an avowed racist who hoped to start a race war by murdering nine parishioners at a black church in South Carolina. Despite expressing clear political and philosophical motivations, neither was labeled a terrorist by the media or authorities.

With white shooters, the discussion is always on mental health. This framing has as a convenient subtext the admission that we can never know when a person might snap; therefore, there are no effective preventative measures, certainly not gun control. With Muslim killers, the discussion is on their affiliation, however tenuous it may be, with organized jihadist groups. The problem of Muslim killers is treated as systemic and solvable; white killers are a burden we learn to live with.

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A vigil in Thailand shows solidarity with the victims in Orlando.

The inconsistency is racist and nothing more. If the Orlando shooter had been white, Trump would not have proudly tweeted a plan to ban whites from America. Chris Christie would not have said America needs to “get over there and start making them pay where they live” – which, in Mateen’s case, would have meant Queens. But rather than make distinctions between mass murderers, we should examine something they have in common.

Regardless of the personal motivations of each killer, American laws and culture make their crimes frighteningly easy to carry out. More than eighty percent of the guns used in mass shootings are acquired legally. Lax gun laws allow people with criminal convictions and mental instability to buy rifles and high-capacity magazines that are easily capable of firing dozens of rounds per minute. We could treat all mass shooters as terrorists and take a standard line of military attack: cut off their supply.

The NRA thinks that would be tyranny and suggests that the better solution is for everyone to carry a gun. In this dystopia, American society is in a perpetual state of mutually assured destruction – no one will fire because they know they’ll be fired upon in turn. This extreme view is espoused unflinchingly and defended as sacred principal. But it’s purely the profit motive that drives the NRA’s fundamentalism and disregard for human life. Nonetheless, their domination of the conversation stonewalls even modest attempts at reform.

We don’t need to go as far as total elimination of firearms. Target shooting, hunting and home defense are all legitimate reasons to own a gun. But buying advanced, military-grade semiautomatic weapons at a department store with only a minimal background check goes far beyond the imaginings of the Founding Fathers. The phrase “common sense gun reform” is often used and it should mean, at a minimum, this:

In order to own a gun, a person must pass a thorough background check, state the gun’s intended use, obtain a license and have a mental evaluation – all or most of which are requirements in other countries. High-capacity magazines and assault weapons should be outlawed. Bans will likely only affect future sales, but that may be enough – many mass shooters acquire their weapons shortly before their sprees, including Mateen. Gun registries should be complete and public. Law enforcement should focus on taking illegal guns off the street.

Some good has come in the wake of the latest massacre. Politicians are taking real steps. Senate Democrats filibustered for gun reform and even Trump said he would talk to the NRA about restricting firearms for suspected terrorists. It’s time to confront our toxic gun culture head-on. Studies unambiguously show that more guns means more death, and America leads the world on both counts.

Being tough on Muslims won’t prevent more tragedies like Orlando, but restricting access to weapons of mass slaughter might. Ideology, religion, and the fragility of the human mind have driven people to murder for centuries. But it is only the guns and the easy access to them that make the carnage we’ve seen all over America – in Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Charleston, Tucson, and others – not only possible, but routine.

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