We Need Comprehensive Gun Control, Not More Racial Profiling

Senator Chris Murphy on the floor of the Senate during his marathon 15-hour filibuster last week demanding that Congress pass a gun control bill in the wake of the Orlando shooting. (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Senator Chris Murphy on the floor of the Senate during his marathon 15-hour filibuster last week demanding that Congress pass a gun control bill in the wake of the Orlando shooting. (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

Last week, freshman Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) ended a marathon fifteen hour filibuster demanding that Congress finally do something — anything — about the gun control issue. Just days prior, a gunman committed one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history when he stormed into the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida with a semiautomatic assault rifle, shooting and killing 49 victims and wounding 53 more before being killed by police. Most of the Orlando shooter’s victims that night — the twelfth of LGBT Pride Month — were Black and Brown LGBT clubgoers out for a night of drinks and dancing at Pulse’s weekly Latin night.

This was the 176th mass shooting in 2016 alone. To date, nearly 1,000 Americans have been wounded or killed in mass shootings, and the year is not yet half over. There are, quite simply, no words left to utter about this tragic, angering, inexcusable status quo except these: we need better gun control.

When Omar Mateen, Orlando shooter, attacked Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning, he did so with a legally purchased Sig Sauer MCX and Glock17 handgun. The rifle was first developed at the request of US military to accept a range of ammunition types, and its specialty is its built-in silencing technology. On June 12, Mateen used his MCX to fire a still unknown number of bullets at a rate of 24 rounds in 9 seconds.

As this gun enthusiast blog raves, “it really does look like SIG Sauer took the concept of the Honey Badger and ran with it all the way to the finish line. And then decided to make it available for sale to the civilian market and not just for military contracts.”

The MCX is, without a doubt, a weapon of war.

Common sense dictates that this gun — whose only purpose is to maximize the task of ending human lives as quickly and efficiently as possibly — does not belong on the civilian market.

For too long, this country has been paralyzed on the issue of gun control by the multimillion dollar lobbying efforts of Second Amendment groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). Republicans and Democrats alike have been loathe to broach the topic of gun control. For decades, legislators  who were fearful of losing re-election bids if they even hinted at going up against the intensity of the gun rights lobby simply side-stepped the issue of gun control.

Their fear is based on the single-minded dedication of the NRA and their supporters. Yet, despite being perceived as the single most powerful lobbying group in Washington, the NRA represents the interests of a small minority of Americans.

Last night, John Oliver pointed out that the NRA boasts a membership of only 5 million, 3 million fewer folks than members who belong to Planet Fitness. However, they wield power because these 5 million NRA members are largely single-issue voters with the time and dedication to harass lawmakers into blocking any effort to regulate gun access, or even collect data about gun violence. They even blocked the confirmation vote for Surgeon General Vivek Murthy for daring to suggest that gun violence is a public health crisis that warrants further consideration.

Last week’s Democratic filibuster is the first signs of courage on gun control by any lawmaker in decades, and for that Senator Murphy and Senate Democrats deserve credit.

For far too long, legislators have failed to do anything to pass significant gun control, even though 70% of Americans (and nearly 80% of Asian Americans) support better gun sales regulation. In 2004, Congress quietly allowed the expiry of the federal assault weapons ban that would have made the MCX used by Omar Mateen to murder 49 people illegal for civilian purchase. In 2013, the Machin-Toomey bill — which would have required background checks on all gun sales and which was the most significant gun control proposals up for a vote in the last decade — was defeated despite a Democratically-held Senate. Oliver notes that last week and just days after the Orlando shooting, effort to repeal the Dickey amendment — which bans the CDC from using its budget to collect data on gun violence — was again defeated to zero public outcry.

But, just because Senate Democrats are finally showing bravery on gun control doesn’t mean that all of their proposed bills sit easily with me. Following Murphy’s filibuster, four gun control bills are scheduled for a vote in the Senate — according to Fox News (so take that with a grain of salt) none are expected to pass. While I support expansion of background checks for gun sales — the crux of a bill authored by Murphy — there is another bill under consideration that causes me concern. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has put forward a measure endorsed by the Justice Department to prevent suspects being investigated by the FBI from purchasing a gun.

On paper, this bill sounds like common sense. We don’t want terrorists to legally purchase military-style weapons that they might then use to commit acts of terrorism against the American civilian populace.

This bill makes the (flawed) assumption, however, that merely being investigated by the FBI or the State Deoartment is sufficient just cause to render a person guilty of terrorism and to therefore deny them access to their constitutional rights. After all, we already do this, right? People under investigation by the FBI are not permitted to fly in commercial airplanes without strict scrutiny, if they are permitted to board at all. And, of course, only guilty people are suspicious, right?

Yet — and this is important — the federal government is not infallible when it comes to placing people under suspicion of terrorism. The ACLU reported in 2012 that the federal “No Fly” list included 21,000 people, including 500 Americans, who were denied their right to travel for seemingly arbitrary reasons and without any prior notice — today, the list has doubled in size. Stories abound of innocent people wrongfully placed on terrorist watch lists for dubious reasons — including this one posted last week by someone who was placed under suspicion for apparently daring to attend mosque and synonygogue services regularly, and who spent months attempting phone calls and emails to the FBI to clear their name.

Efforts to monitor potential terrorists and prevent terrorist crimes are obviously important. No one denies that. But, the FBI and the State Department also has a history of using questionable tactics for placing people under suspicion of criminal activity. Many times, the people who find themselves wrongfully targeted by the federal government tend to be people of colour whose racial identity has contributed to their “profiling” as potential suspects. The fact that people can be placed under suspicion without any form of due process protections compounds the risk of unjust, baseless profiling.

Racial profiling isn’t just limited to Muslims and Muslim Americans. Non-Muslim Asian Americans face a similar problem. Last year, I wrote about how the State Department has blacklisted numerous Asian American and Muslim employees from accepting certain positions on the grounds that they might commit acts of international espionage. Since the 1990’s, Chinese American civilian scientists have also found themselves wrongfully targeted as suspects of foreign espionage. In 1999, Taiwanese American scientist Dr. Wen Ho Lee was indicted on charges of stealing nuclear secrets for China. In 2015, Dr. Xiaoxing Xi and Dr. Sherry Chen were arrested and charged in separate cases as suspected spies. In virtually all cases, the charges were ultimately determined to be baseless, but not after the investigation ruined the professional careers of these and numerous other Asian Americans. Meanwhile, taken together, these examples strongly suggest that racial profiling plays a significant role in how the government places people under suspicion of crimes involving national security.

So: how exactly is a federal “No Buy” gun sales list going to do anything but selectively disenfranchise certain people of colour?

One can’t help but wonder if the Feinstein measure supporting a federal “No Buy” list is relatively popular among (predominantly White) Democrats and Republicans because neither they nor their (predominantly White) constituents really have to worry too much about being wrongfully placed on a federal watchlist based primarily on the colour of their skin.

A federal “No Buy” list is unlikely to do much to stop mass shootings. Omar Mateen was under investigation by the FBI at one point, but had been cleared by the FBI by the time he attacked Pulse nightclub. Furthermore, investigators increasingly suspect that terrorism had little to do with Mateen’s attack. Neither Dylann Roof, nor Adam Lanza, nor Jared Lee Loughner, nor Seung-Hui Cho, nor Wade Michael Page, nor most other mass shooters in recent memory found on FBI terrorist watchlists.

I applaud Senator Murphy’s filibuster. I applaud Democrats’ willingness to tackle gun control. But this so-called “No Buy” bill feels like yet another effort by legislators fearful of the NRA to pass a politically expedient, but ultimately distracting, bill that attempts to sell gun control by villainizing people of colour. Meanwhile, we fail to focus on the real issue: that it’s far too easy for people in this country to legally access weapons of mass destruction.

As a country, we need to find the courage to confront the gun rights lobby and actually pass comprehensive gun control legislation. We need to do something to stop America’s epidemic of gun violence. We need to halt the sale of military weapons to the civilian populace. We do not need legislated Islamophobia or other forms of racial profiling. We cannot continue to believe that the gun control issue is helped by measures that seek to absolve America’s guilty conscience over gun control with policies that reinforce the government’s policies of profiling that disproportionately target, harass and disenfranchise people of colour while doing little to stop the actual problem of gun violence.

We desperately need better gun control, in this country. But, we need gun control that applies common sense regulations to limit military-style gun sales for all Americans, not just non-White ones.

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