The terror attack in Orlando marks a rare nexus point in our politics. For the moment, the face of America’s tragedy is gay—and largely Latino—as we grimly identify those slain. And for the moment, the LGBT community, built on principles of acceptance and tolerance, grapples with the notion that this terrorist act was inspired by religious fanaticism.
No one on either side of the political divide is particularly comfortable with this narrative. But the moment does offer an uncanny opportunity, an alignment almost never seen, where elements on the farthest sides of the cultural spectrum suddenly find common cause.
After other recent mass shootings, solutions have proved elusive. The left blames guns; the right blames radical Islam, and we are back to where we began.
Or are we? It’s safe to assume none of us actually wants to see ISIS-inspired terrorists armed with semi-automatic rifles, able to attack at will within our own borders. But to prevent that, we must address a rather tricky question: How much liberty must we concede? This is often framed as a question of Second Amendment rights. But this particular attack in Orlando raises new questions, compelling a review of our values and priorities.
For the average American, it is the First Amendment that articulates many of our most basic and fundamental civil rights: freedom of speech and of worship, but also of assembly and association. On Sunday, the latter two rights came under direct assault for the LGBT community. There is little doubt, for instance, that the killer targeted his victims out of hate. He intended to strike not just at people, but at a closely-knit community. After all, if his goal were sheer bloodshed and horror, Orlando boasts far more tempting and, some might even argue, more “sympathetic” targets. The killer apparently had issues with gay people; his father stated that, two weeks prior, his son “got very angry” at the mere sight of two men kissing in public, and even angrier that his own boy should witness it. At the same time, the killer was known to frequent the very establishment he attacked, suggesting that he may have deeply internalized the hate he heard from religious extremists.
ISIS itself regularly fuels hatred of gay people and violence towards them. It broadcasts gruesome executions of homosexuals thrown blindfolded from rooftops. Following the Orlando attack, ISIS claimed the attacker as one of its own and called for even more such killings worldwide. A pall now hangs over Pride month and its many celebrations, as LGBT communities worldwide processes how a terror attack upon a single club can have a chilling effect upon us all.
The attack, it must be noted, struck at the heart of the local gay community in Orlando. As President Obama expressed so eloquently, “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”
With our most basic freedoms under direct assault, it becomes both fair and imperative for us to ask, “What will be done to safeguard our right to associate and assemble?” Just as a fundamental right to vote can be stripped away by even the threat of violence, so too can a whole community grow silent out of fear. Such is the power of terrorism.
The answer to this question ought to be both resounding and clear, but it quickly grows muddled because another freedom—the right to bear arms—is implicated. That is to say, the asserted right of citizens to own, purchase, and sell semi-automatic firearms runs headlong into our right to participate in civil society without undue fear of being targeted or killed. We appear to face a choice, because one freedom seemingly cannot be protected without limiting the other.
But this is not so rare a circumstance. Indeed, there is no freedom within the Bill of Rights that is absolute. Even freedom of speech, a bedrock of our participatory democracy, has some established limits. I may not jokingly yell “fire” inside a crowded theater, precisely because the value of that speech is heavily outweighed by the danger to others who might panic. Nor may I cavalierly libel others without fear of legal repercussions. This is because we have decided, as a society, that the cost of the injuries that might arise outweighs any benefit from the freedom to say whatever I want.
We already do this with firearms, too. For example, private citizens cannot buy, sell, or possess machine guns, for the simple reason that their potential for great harm outweighs any possible rationale for owning them. Our Supreme Court already has set the outer boundary of limitations on gun ownership by protecting the right to own a handgun in the home. But beyond that, the rest lies undetermined. Somewhere between a protective home handgun and a machine gun-toting terrorist lies the harder question of what to do about the rest, such as the semi-automatic weapons of choice used by recent mass killers.
Assuming the threat we face now comprises heavily-armed, homegrown religious fanatics bent on inflicting massive casualties, the logical solution is to render them less armed and less fanatical. Restricting their ability to obtain dangerous weapons domestically thus is as vital as diminishing and destroying their bases and influence overseas. Would-be terrorists cannot so much as board a plane without a thorough screening, yet we give them nearly unfettered access to very dangerous weapons. Arguments that we will never stop all shootings by restricting access to such weapons fails to account for our strong and common desire at least to stop many of them—or any of them.
In 2004, a 10-year ban on assault weapons ended due to a sunset provision in the law. America has since lacked the political will to renew the ban, perhaps because victims of mass shootings don’t tend to have friends in Congress, even when they are innocent school children.
Now this latest and most deadly attack has targeted a group that has spent the last few decades learning how to organize, fight for, and protect its rights. Perhaps, then, the next chapter of LGBT history might not be just about the struggle to gain equality for ourselves, but also how we might help lead this country towards a collective right to participate and live free of fear and terror, and ultimately toward a common-sense, permanent ban on weapons designed for mass slaughter.
Like it or not, this history and this obligation have been thrust upon us, and we must now rise to its challenge. For if there is one group in this country with more will, more experience, and more tenacity than the NRA, it is the LGBT community.
You don’t want to mess with us.