Sunday’s horrific massacre in Florida, committed by a suspected terrorist who was well known to authorities and yet still managed easily and legally to purchase an assault rifle and a pistol, has reignited the debate over gun control in the U.S. with renewed vigor.
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The ease with which Omar Mateen – a 29-year-old security guard who had been on federal terrorist watch lists – legally procured the pistol and the Sig Sauer MCX semiautomatic rifle, should be enough to make even the staunchest gun advocate wince.
Mateen, who was reportedly motivated by the sight of two men kissing (and might have been gay himself, according to a former classmate), walked into Orlando's crowded Pulse nightclub and proceeded to murder 49 people, wounding dozens more, in what is now known to be the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Many people, among them President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have pointed to the country's lax gun regulations, and Florida’s lack of such laws in particular, as a major contributing factor in facilitating the shooting attack. In the “Gunshine State,” deadly assault rifles like the Sig Sauer MCX can be bought with such ease that they don’t require formal registration, even when purchased by FBI-investigated suspected terrorists.
The attack served as a cruel reminder that in America, it is astoundingly easy for any madman to buy weapons and massacre innocent people.
Given the effect Florida’s gun policy likely had on the attack, one wonders what would have happened had Mateen not been able to simply walk into a store and legally purchase the perfect tools for committing mass murder. Had he been forced to purchase the guns illegally, could Mateen have left a trail of evidence, making it more likely that authorities could catch him before the act? What if he simply had to settle for a far less deadly weapon?
Those questions, unfortunately, will forever remain unanswered. But a look at another anti-LGBT attack by a lone terrorist that took place less than a year earlier, in Israel, where gun-control laws are far stricter, might give us an indication of what could have been.
In July 2015, less than a year before Mateen shocked the world, a crazed ultra-Orthodox man named Yishai Schlissel walked into Jerusalem’s annual gay pride parade, wielding a knife. He murdered 16-year-old Shira Banki and wounded six others before he was caught and restrained by police. He committed the attack less than a month after being released from prison, following a 10-year stint for stabbing three people during Jerusalem’s pride parade in 2005.
Comparing the Jerusalem and Orlando cases, one striking difference stands out: the murder weapons. Omar Mateen, a suspected terrorist with clear mental health issues, who reportedly beat his wife, just walked into a store and came out with tools that enabled him to slaughter dozens. In Israel, where gun regulations are especially strict, that would never have happened.
A man like Schlissel (let alone Mateen) would have never had a chance to legally — "legally" being the key word here — get his hands on a gun. In Israel, private licenses to bear arms are mostly limited to active and retired military officers, security professionals and residents of the West Bank. Getting a license is an expensive and exhaustive process, which includes a mental health test and mandatory yearly permit renewals. People who do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces (like Schlissel, and, it also should be noted, Israeli Arabs) essentially have no chance of getting a license.
Residents of dangerous areas are allowed to own one pistol, with no more than 50 bullets. (It is worth noting that as a violent felon, Schlissel would not have been able to easily purchase a gun in Florida, although he still could have done so through private transactions that don’t require background checks.)
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to prevent a madman from getting his hands on a gun if he’s intent on doing so – even if he has to build it himself, as the attack in Tel Aviv last Wednesday by two Palestinian terrorist-cousins proves. The shooters, who killed four and wounded six others, built their own guns: primitive ripoffs of the Swedish-made Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, which was primarily used in the 1950 and '60s.
It is also important to stress that tougher gun regulations would probably not have prevented Sunday’s mass killing in Florida, just as they did not prevent Schlissel’s attack in Israel – and as they do not prevent anti-LGBT hate crimes anywhere else in the world. But the Israeli example offers a bitter, grim lesson: Hatred and homophobia exist everywhere, and murderous madmen who wish to harm LGBT people will always exist. In the United States, all too often, that hatred and homophobia is amplified by easy access to guns.
In Israel, Yishai Schlissel settled for a knife. If Omar Mateen had a knife, instead of a fully loaded assault rifle, most of his victims would probably still be alive.