When videos from the mass shooting in Las Vegas began circulating on social media last Sunday night, I immediately recognized the rapid sound of automatic gunfire. I knew the sound from my time serving in the Army, which I joined in part to ensure that Americans would not have to hear the sounds or see the sights of war at home. And during my military service, I saw first-hand what it looks like when the federal government is serious about addressing a threat to public safety. The U.S. war in Afghanistan began as a response to international terrorism, and thousands of U.S. troops remain there today partly to ensure terrorists don’t find safe haven there again. To date, there is no evidence to suggest the gunman in Las Vegas had ties to or was inspired by an international terrorist group, even though ISIS continues to claim he’s one of their own. But whether the U.S. government meaningfully responds to this attack shouldn’t hinge upon the man’s motive. Gun violence is also a grave threat to public safety, killing far more Americans per year than terrorist plots. The federal government owes the American people a vigorous, good faith effort to confront it as well.
The automatic gunfire was not the only thing that brought back Army memories this past week. When I saw a map depicting mass shootings in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, it looked strikingly similar to a map of attacks in Afghanistan that I would have been charged with analyzing as an intelligence officer. When the red dots on a map indicate activity tied to suspected terrorists—or, in the case of the Taliban, a group that supports them—the U.S. government has an arsenal of personnel and resources it is willing to use in response. In Afghanistan, intelligence officers could employ a host of analysts, computer programs, and collection capabilities in order to understand attacks and inform the operational decision-making process. Commanders could then marshal our country’s extraordinary soldiers, the military’s logistical might, and an impressive array of weapons and munitions to ultimately prevent more red dots from appearing.
Outside of the Department of Defense, the American counterterrorism apparatus is similarly robust. It is, for example, a top priority for both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, we have an entire organization—the National Counterterrorism Center—that “leads the way for the [U.S. government] in terms of analyzing, understanding, and responding to the terrorist threat.”
According to a 2015 estimate by a national security budget expert, the U.S. spends at least $100 billion on counterterrorism every year.
But when red dots on a map aren’t related to international terrorism and instead portray deadly gun violence in America, the federal government sorely lacks a meaningful answer. As a matter of comparison, CNN reports that 440,095 Americans died from gun violence from 2001 to 2014, whereas 3,412 Americans died from terrorist attacks overseas and at home during the same time period. Yet legislation passed in 1996 has in effect prevented the federal government from allotting any consequential amount of federal funds for gun violence research.
According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association that compared federal funding for gun violence research with other leading causes of deaths, “Gun violence killed about as many individuals as sepsis. However, funding for gun violence research was about 0.7 percent of that for sepsis . . . In relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls.”
Sure, the federal government addresses gun violence to some degree. There is, after all, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And federal law enforcement naturally deals with certain crimes that often involve firearms. Still, we’d be fooling ourselves to conclude that the federal response to gun violence has so far been commensurate with the extent of the problem.
Imagine if the federal government brought to bear even a small fraction of the amount of resources it uses to combat international terrorism in order to mitigate gun violence. What if the federal budget provided more money for research aimed at understanding gun violence and offering smart ideas to counter it? What if the government created a national center dedicated solely to this issue? What if Congress passed laws that would enact reasonable restrictions, including the one proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that would outlaw bump stocks? Twelve of the rifles in the Las Vegas gunman’s hotel room were reportedly outfitted with a bump stock, which allows a semiautomatic weapon to be fired with the effect of automatic gunfire, though it does not technically alter the internal mechanisms of the firearm.
What’s more, if the federal government needs to use international terrorism to justify addressing gun violence, it could rightly cite the nexus between the issues. ISIS recently urged followers in the U.S. to exploit lenient gun laws in order to assemble arms for attacks. Several years ago, an al-Qaeda spokesman offered similar advice, explaining that “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms.” Attackers inspired by international terrorism have already taken advantage of this. There was the July 2015 attack on military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in which a gunman killed five service members. In December 2015, two attackers in San Bernardino, California killed 14 people. And then there was the June 2016 attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where a gunman killed 49 people. Reducing the lethality and availability of guns in America will clearly make us all safer, from terrorists and non-terrorists alike.
Concerning gun violence, I see the federal government as a military unit, watching and reacting to attacks in its area of operations with neither adequate intelligence resources for understanding them nor proper operational capabilities for preventing them. In the military, this would be unacceptable. When it comes to international terrorism, we strive to appropriately resource the fight. In the context of gun violence, we should do the same.
On a final note, I admittedly hesitated before writing this piece, thinking about the potential backlash I might receive from fellow veterans. A survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern indicates that 44 percent of veterans own a firearm, making military service “the strongest predictor of gun ownership,” The Guardian reported. But then I remembered the words of retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the aftermath of Orlando:
“As this national crisis continues to rage, I ask my fellow veterans — patriots who have worn the uniform, who took an oath to protect our Constitution and the Second Amendment, who served this great country — to add your voice to this growing call for change. America needs you. In my life as a soldier and citizen, I have seen time and time again that inaction has dire consequences.”