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Lessons of the Orlando Massacre

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In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old, American-born Muslim of Afghan descent, Omar Mateen, with allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), entered a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, armed with a semi-automatic, high-capacity rifle and handgun, and began shooting and taking hostages. Although an Orlando police officer serving as an armed guard outside the club engaged Mateen, the attacker was able to force his way into the nightclub. Within three hours, he had had killed 49 patrons and employees, and wounded another 53. Predictably, gun-control advocates Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, et cetera, berated Congress for not having passed more-stringent gun-control laws. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declared gun control a matter of national security.” The New York Daily News went so far as to blame the National Rifle Association (NRA) for the massacre by running a front-page headline the next day saying, “THANKS, NRA.”

What lessons can we learn from this incident? The first lesson begins with a question: why didn’t anyone inside the club shoot back? There were approximately 320 patrons and employees inside at the time. That’s 320 against 1. Mateen should have been outgunned within minutes, if not seconds, never mind three hours. According to witnesses and the police investigation that followed, he reloaded several times, made at least 16 telephone calls, and checked and even posted to his Facebook page numerous times! He was vulnerable each time he reloaded, made the telephone calls, checked Facebook, or turned his back to some to shoot others. I suspect the reason is that he was the only one armed inside the club. The club was apparently a Gun Free Zone, otherwise known to would-be attackers as a Free Fire Zone. Vladimir Lenin once observed, “One man with a gun can control 100 without one.”  In this case, one man with a gun controlled 320 unarmed souls. As police firearms instructor Clint Smith warns his students, “An armed man will kill an unarmed man with monotonous regularity.”

The presence of armed people does not guarantee safety. It does, however, improve the chances of surviving an armed encounter, discourages assailants, and possibly limits the damage. Isn’t it interesting that mass shootings are stopped by people — either police or others — with guns? Why then discourage people from having the means to protect themselves where it counts — at the time and place where the crime is being committed?

Failure after failure

The second lesson is the failure of gun-control laws to work as advertised. Every gun-control law passed in this country promised to reduce crime and gun violence, and enhance safety, from the National Firearms Act of  1934, to the Federal Firearms Act of 1938,  the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Firearm Owners Protection Act  of 1986, the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994–2004, and Bill Clinton’s executive order prohibiting military personnel from carrying self-defense weapons on military posts and recruiting offices.

Each failed to deliver as promised, to be succeeded by another, which also failed, and so on, which is why there is such a plethora of laws, none of which prevented any of the mass shootings in the news to date. Mateen had no criminal record, passed a background check, and complied with every other law to obtain the firearms he used in the massacre. He even worked as a security guard for a company whose client was the Department of Homeland Security, which required him to undergo an additional background check.

What each of the laws did succeed in doing was to add new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms for the law-abiding, making it more difficult and expensive for good people to arm and train themselves. Those are only the federal laws. When you add state and local gun-control laws, the total is somewhere near 20,000! What has worked to reduce crime and gun violence is intelligent police work, taking habitual dangerous criminals off the streets, and increasing the number of armed and trained citizens.

Despite evidence to the contrary, gun-control advocates insist that the average citizen does not need firearms for protection because we have the military, police, and now Homeland Security to protect us. A third lesson, therefore, is the failure of those agencies to do just that. In fact, they are under no legal obligation to do so, as expressed in Bowers v. Devito, 686 F.2d 616 (7th Cir. 1982) and many other court cases:

There is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen. It is monstrous if the state fails to protect its residents against such predators but it does not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, or, we suppose, any other provision of the Constitution. The Constitution is a charter of negative liberties; it tells the state to let the people alone; it does not require the federal government or the state to provide services, even so elementary a service as maintaining law and order…. The duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists.

Even under the best of circumstances, with the best of intentions, those agencies cannot prevent every criminal or terrorist act. Nevertheless, it puts a lie to those who advocate exclusive reliance on them for protection. Point defense is better than area defense. After all, the first people at a crime scene are the perpetrators and the victims. As syndicated columnist and senior editor at Reason magazine Jacob Sullum writes, “In the face of self-directed terrorists who are invisible until they strike, the last thing we should do is prevent law-abiding Americans from carrying guns. Autonomous terrorism calls for autonomous defense.” Amen to that!

Rather than admit the failure of their policies, gun-control advocates blame gun-rights supporters for resisting further infringements on their right to keep and bear arms, and insist on adding more and more ineffective laws. At some point, reasonable people might suspect another motive.

This post was written by:

Benedict LaRosa is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University, respectively.