At least since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, politicians and intelligence professionals have been focused on stopping the sort of spectacular catastrophic attacks that Al Qaeda has made its trademark. That’s for a good reason: catastrophic attacks not only kill in great numbers, but they also have the potential to cause serious economic and psychological harm to a society.
From a charitable point of view that ignores the religious ideology and war profiteering of the Bush years, the pro-intervention versus anti-intervention disputes of the last decade have ostensibly been about how to stop these catastrophic attacks. We had to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, we were told, in order to prevent Al Qaeda from having an open base from which to plan more terror. We were told the nation had to invade Iraq in order to prevent Saddam Hussein from supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. Regardless of the truth of these claims (the latter, of course, was proven patently false), stopping another 9/11 has been the entire focus of our military and national security apparatus.
But hidden underneath that primary concern has always been a more quiet worry: in an open, diverse and consumerist culture, one wouldn’t necessarily need to use bombs and planes to destroy government buildings and major infrastructure to cause terror. One would only need to take small arms to a crowded area full of civilians and start firing away. The 2015 gun murders of 147 people in Kenya by Islamist Somali militants and the gunning down of 77 people at a youth camp by a right-wing terrorist in Norway were the signals of now a familiar change in the tactics of terrorists. Bombs would still be useful tools in the arsenal, but guns were really all they would need.
With the recent gun-based terror attacks by ISIS-inspired extremists in Paris and now apparently in San Bernardino, the stakes of the gun control debate have changed considerably. No longer is the gun violence epidemic merely a crime and public health problem. It’s now a matter of national security.
Even Republicans should be concerned about this. It has long been an ironic running joke that people in small-town and rural America were voting Republican out of silly fears of terrorists killing them in their local WalMart, while big city liberals who were actually in danger of catastrophic terrorism were the braver souls thumbing our noses at the threat. That’s actually no longer the case. Today, all an aspiring terrorist–be they Christianist, Islamist or otherwise–need do is walk into WalMart, buy a readily available gun and ammunition there, and then turn that gun on the shoppers inside. A single catastrophic attack on the Washington Monument or a bridge wouldn’t do much to cripple the nation’s economy, but a series of gun attacks on shopping centers actually would.
The recent GOP vote to allow people on the terrorist watch list to continue buying guns also shows the very soft underbelly of conservative deference to the NRA. Republicans must know that Democrats will use that and similar votes as an effective cudgel against them in election season. They must know that as much as they stand to gain from a fearful public and their racist base with every attack by a religious conservative Islamist-inspired killer, there will also be those like the Planned Parenthood shooter from their own conservative ideological faction–and that all of these terrorist attacks will be even more proof of the need for gun control as a matter of national security.
The nation has already made a number of concessions to the clear wording of the 1st and 4th amendments in the name of national security. The 2nd amendment is explicit about its call for a well-regulated militia. It’s beyond time that if we as a people are going to be serious enough about stopping terrorism to invade countries halfway around the world based on trumped-up allegations, and set up an egregious and questionably effective mass spying agency against ourselves, we at least take seriously the imperative to regulate the terrorists’ latest weapon of choice–and regulate it well.