In the wake of the Orlando nightclub atrocity, President Obama has admonished us to "do some soul-searching" about how "easy" it is in this country to obtain firearms. Just so. But if we are to do an honest examination of conscience, we must begin with the facts.
Omar Mateen, the Orlando jihadist, slaughtered his victims with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, an AR-15-style rifle, and a Glock handgun. Contrary to mainstream media hysteria, neither is a machine gun, a category of weapon that has been illegal to purchase or possess since 1934. Each is, instead, a semiautomatic firearm, i.e., one pull of the trigger fires but a single round of ammunition.
From that standpoint, as a matter of substance as opposed to cosmetics, the Sig Sauer MCX is not different from the millions of semiautomatic rifles that Americans have owned and possessed since the early 1900s. While the Sig Sauer may look like a military-grade machine gun, it is not. Think of it as a Volkswagen Beetle dressed up to look like a Maserati.
This is not to deny that Mateen was able to cause tremendous mayhem using these semiautomatic weapons. They are most certainly dangerous implements capable of spreading death and carnage. But they are no more dangerous than any other semiautomatic gun.
How was Mateen able to obtain such dangerous weapons? He bought them at a gun store.
Commercial sales of firearms are regulated by federal and state law. A firearms vendor must hold a license issued by the federal government and must - in conjunction with federal law enforcement authorities - conduct a background check of anyone attempting to purchase a gun.
A purchaser must verify in writing and under penalty of law that, among other things, he is not under criminal indictment; a convicted criminal; a fugitive from justice; a drug addict or user of controlled substances; an adjudicated mental defective; a former inmate of a mental institution; someone who was dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces; or subject to a court order restraining him from stalking, harassing, or threatening his child or "intimate partner." He must also verify under oath that he has never been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, has never renounced his U.S. citizenship, and is not an illegal alien.
All of the foregoing sworn information is then checked against the FBI's records. If the purchaser is cleared by the FBI, then the sale may be completed. The seller, however, may also decline to make the sale for any reason up to and including the purchaser's looks, behavior, or demeanor.
Moreover, in the Orlando case, Mateen held a concealed-weapons license issued by the state of Florida. To obtain that, he had to be fingerprinted and photographed and to undergo a background investigation by Florida authorities. Also, in a bit of stomach-churning irony, he was required by Florida to undergo firearm safety training. Since he purchased his handgun in Palm Beach County, he was subject to a five-day waiting period before he could take delivery.
Finally, Mateen was a security officer employed by a private firm that holds contracts with the Department of Homeland Security. Presumably his employer took additional measures to determine Mateen's fitness for duty and possession of a weapon, but, as of publication, the nature and extent of that vetting have not been made public.
In light of these facts, it is fair to ask what further safeguards, procedures, or restrictions on the purchase, ownership, or possession of firearms would have prevented the Orlando carnage. For example, advocates of what they call "commonsense gun control" argue that anyone on a terrorist watch list should not be permitted to legally buy a gun. Fair enough, but would such a prohibition be effective? Or would a determined terrorist such as Mateen simply resort to using a straw purchaser, a practice that has been used successfully by felons, drug users, wife beaters, and others to evade existing legal restrictions?
Should we follow Europe's example of banning possession of firearms by civilians? If so, isn't it fair to ask how the Paris jihadis were able to gun down and murder 129 infidels and wound another 368 at the Bataclan nightclub in November?
Putting aside the mandate of the Second Amendment, we must recognize that there are 90 million law-abiding Americans who legally possess an estimated 300 million firearms and who pose no demonstrable threat to their fellow citizens. Are they to be turned into outlaws by legislative or executive fiat? And are these newly minted criminals then to be stripped of their weapons? If so, how would that be done? By force of arms?
If even a fraction of that 90 million were to resist confiscation of their weapons, does the government have the police, military, judicial, and penal resources to search, disarm, arrest, prosecute, and punish that vast legion of otherwise law-abiding citizens? Would the law-enforcement establishment willingly undertake such punitive actions? We have already seen substantial numbers of gun owners in Connecticut and New York openly defy hastily enacted antigun laws imposed in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Faced with other more pressing threats to public order, police and sheriffs' departments in those states have wisely elected not to risk the mayhem that could very well result if they attempted to arrest and disarm defiant gun owners.
And even if the government somehow managed to confiscate all 300 million legally owned firearms, what about the untold and uncounted millions of firearms already in the hands of criminals? So far, law enforcement has been unable to effectively prevent the possession and use of guns by our domestic criminal class. Should we expect a different result when dealing with bloodthirsty jihadis hell-bent on mass murder?
These are but some of the questions that must be answered. To ignore them is to engage in magical thinking whereby the very real threats posed by armed terrorists and criminals can be defeated by simply passing a law.
If only life were that neat and easy.
George Parry is a former state and federal prosecutor practicing law in Philadelphia. email@example.com