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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pressure steps up on gun control measures in wake of Orlando attack

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Democrats have stepped up pressure for passage of gun control measures that they say could prevent another attack like the Orlando shooting that killed 49 people early Sunday, but gun rights advocates say they are rehashing tired ideas that have little chance of stopping terrorists.

President Barack Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton led the charge in speeches and statements, urging Congress to consider new restrictions on firearms and deriding those who oppose taking action.

"We have to make it harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on weapons of war that let them kill dozens of innocents," Obama said Tuesday.

Obama argued for "common sense" measures to "reduce the lethality of somebody who intends to do harm."

He spoke of two specific policy proposals that have proven highly controversial in the past. One is preventing people who are on the no fly list because of possible ties to terrorism from purchasing guns. The other is reinstating the ban on so-called assault weapons that expired in 2004.

Clinton has used similar language about keeping "weapons of war" off the streets.

"If you're too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America," Clinton said Monday.

Although Democrats have heavily pushed a restriction on firearms purchases by those on the no-fly list over the last few days, such a regulation would have had no impact on Orlando killer Omar Mateen's ability to get a gun. He had been investigated by the FBI in the past but he was no longer under any kind of monitoring.

House Democrats expressed their frustration over the lack of congressional action on gun control Monday, yelling "Where's the bill?" and "No leadership!" after a moment of silence for the Orlando victims.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) is refusing to participate in moments of silence until something gets done. In an interview with Sinclair Tuesday, Himes acknowledged that his protest likely will not change anything.

"I'm not under any illusions that that's going to all of a sudden break the logjam around here," he said.

Himes said everything that can be done within the limits of the Constitution and the law should be done to end gun violence and terrorism, and the U.S. can learn from countries like Israel and Britain, but some attacks are inevitable.

"The reality is that a truly determined murderer is going to cause mayhem," he said.

Increasing security at a nightclub or another crowded venue may just push a shooter on to a less protected target.

"We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that if we just put enough security around stadiums, somebody's not going to bust into a church or somewhere else that's a softer target," Himes said.

With both sides of the gun control debate firmly entrenched in their positions, he did not appear optimistic that the changes he seeks are imminent.

"I wish I could tell you if there's just one more horrendous massacre, well, that'll make all the difference," Himes said. "As horrible as that sounds, I also think it's not true."

Republicans and gun rights groups have swiftly condemned calls for gun control in the wake of Sunday's tragedy, arguing that the focus should instead be on stopping radical Islamic terrorists.

National Rifle Association Executive Director Chris Cox called the proposal to bring back the assault weapons ban a "transparent head-fake" that will do nothing to make Americans safer.

"Criminals and terrorists are not deterred by gun control laws," he wrote in a USA Today op-ed. "To suggest otherwise provides a dangerous sense of false security."

"Law-abiding gun owners are tired of being blamed for the acts of madmen and terrorists," Cox said.

Since Mateen was not on a no fly list, passed a background check, and purchased his guns legally, Dave Workman, communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, questioned why Clinton and Obama are talking about these reforms.

"They're using this atrocity in Orlando to push a repackaged agenda that they've been after for years," said Workman, senior editor of the Gun Mag.

Even if those changes could have prevented Mateen's purchases, he may have had someone else buy guns for him like the San Bernardino shooters did or improvise a different weapon entirely.

"If someone is really determined to inflict a lot of damage and a lot of pain and injury...they will find a way to do that that doesn't have to involve firearms at all," Workman said.

A terrorist does not need a firearm to commit mass murder, as history has demonstrated repeatedly.

Suicide bombers killed 305 people at the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 left 168 dead. Hijackers with box cutters killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.

"Because this guy used a firearm, instead of blaming the terrorist, they're blaming the availability of the firearm," he said.

Workman also decried the focus on semiautomatic rifles, which millions of people use legally for hunting, protection, competition, and other activities. If the weapons were as dangerous in the hands of private citizens as some say, he said they would be causing an "astonishing" wave of violence across the country that is not happening.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, dismissed criticisms that gun control advocates are exploiting a tragedy by starting this fight so soon after the Orlando attack.

"This is the perfect time," Watts said. "I always have people on social media say to me it's too soon...Actually for the 49 people just shot and killed, it's too late."

She believes activists need to match the intensity and passion that comes from the other side. They also must make their case that easy access to guns is part of the problem rather than the solution.

"Every time there's a horrific shooting like this, you hear extremists say the solution is more guns and zero laws and there were no laws that would have stopped this shooting," she said.

Watts' organization is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control coalition that grew out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. She believes grassroots activists working together can have the same kind of influence on state and national lawmakers that the NRA does.

Watts argued for incremental change, similar to the way various regulations made driving safer over time. She does not want to see reform proposals dismissed simply because they would not have stopped Mateen.

"There is no gun law that is a silver bullet," she said.

Even after the Orlando attack, she knows Congress is unlikely to act on guns. If Clinton is elected in November, she said that could usher in real change, but "the Congress we had the day before Sandy Hook is pretty much the Congress we have now."

In an interview with PBS' "Newshour" Monday, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) lamented the fact that both sides of the debate so quickly revert to their talking points after an attack.

"Nobody is supporting putting weapons in the hands of terrorists," he said.

He argued that "taking the fight to the doorsteps of terrorists" and promoting counter-messaging to ISIS propaganda are higher priorities than overhauling gun regulations in ways that would not have prevented the Orlando or San Bernardino attacks.

He noted that the FBI is alerted when people on terrorist watch lists buy firearms from licensed dealers, even though the sale is allowed.

"A weapon is just a tool," Hurd said. "Whether you use a long gun, a handgun, or explosives, these are tools in the hands of a terrorist. And if you are that deranged that you are willing to kill 49 innocent people and take your own life, then are you going to get that tool however you can in order to do your deed."

Hurd and other Republicans have also questioned whether the no fly list is accurate enough to rely on for the purposes of denying someone the constitutional right to bear arms.

At a Sinclair Broadcast Group town hall in December, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) alleged that the president and his allies use the gun issue as a distraction.

"I think the president and some people in his party are trying to deflect the conversation from terror, from crime, and from violence to this gun control issue," he said.

"The issue is terrorism and violence, not about some inanimate object, whether it's a pipe bomb or whether it's a firearm," Perry said.

Despite their seeming ubiquity in recent mass shooting incidents, so-called assault weapons are used in only a small percentage of crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Gun rights advocates also argue that the assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004 had negligible impact on gun violence.

It is a mistake to frame the debate around the mass shootings, given the broader gun violence trends in the country, according to William Vizzard, professor emeritus of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento.

"We keep focusing on the mass shootings...but the day-in, day-out impact is not mass shootings. It's young urban men killing each other."

With most Republicans in Congress adamantly opposed to any gun control legislation Democrats have proposed, anything that does pass would either be purely symbolic or too watered down to be effective.

"Doing something that would actually have significant impact seems to me just beyond political reach," Vizzard said.

He spoke of "modest" efforts that he believes could make a difference without unconstitutional restrictions on Second Amendment rights, such as extending background checks to all transactions or increasing penalties for falsifying gun records. They are boring and complicated proposals that do not fulfill people's need for answers and action at a time like this, though.

"The chance of doing even those things is extremely remote," he said.

A ban on "military-style semiautomatic firearms" might have an impact on mass shootings, he said, but there have been shooters who used handguns too. There are also millions of semiautomatic rifles out there already, and passing a law that puts a sanction on anything that belongs to that many people is going to understandably draw outrage.

Vizzard is skeptical that the Orlando attack will permanently alter the gun debate. Within weeks, he expects the public's attention to shift to another issue, as it has after other high-profile shootings.

None of the measures being debated are guaranteed to prevent future terrorist attacks if they are enacted, and he doubts that a law could be crafted that absolutely would. It is impossible to harden every target and to know where the next threat will come from.

"I cannot tell you how to stop a person who has no concerns for their own personal safety and no qualms about killing people randomly," Vizzard said.

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