Less Big Data Surveillance, and More Weapons Arsenal Surveillance?

Love him or hate him and his methods, Edward Snowden did succeed in focusing the nation’s attention on how national security agencies are using mass data collection to try to discover signals and patterns that might indicate probable terrorist activity before it happens. While we can debate the constitutionality of these approaches, one thing that seems to be clear is that they don’t seem to be working. There is no record of the NSA detecting and foiling terrorist activity by means of big data collection.

There is, however, shocking evidence of authorities often being made aware of weapons arsenals being stockpiled by eventual terrorists and mass shooters without anyone managing to prevent these individuals from committing murderous crimes. This was true of the Isla Vista mass shooter, and now it has proved true of the Orlando shooter as well. Not only was the FBI aware of his terrorist threats, they were also allegedly informed of his attempted weapons purchases just a month before the shooting:

A Florida gun store owner revealed on Thursday that he had contacted the FBI about Omar Mateen about a month ago when the Orlando nightclub shooter had attempted to purchase body armor and a large amount of ammunition, according to reports.

Robert Abell, who owns Lotus Gunworks in Jensen Beach, said that the store turned Mateen away when he tried to purchase 1,000 rounds of ammunition, as well as two types of body armor that the store did not carry.

The store owner’s suspicions were heightened when Mateen spoke on the phone to someone in a foreign language.

The store contacted the FBI, which was also investigating a group of Middle Eastern men buying police gear at the store. The men turned out to be security guards. The FBI asked about Mateen’s visit, but the store couldn’t provide any identifying details or security camera footage.

It’s hard to know if anything more could have been done in this specific case given that the store couldn’t provide identifying information–though it’s certainly possible that more aggressive follow-up and sketch artist work might have yielded results. But it’s increasingly obvious that the terrorist weapon of choice these days is easily available assault weaponry combined with body armor.

It would seem to make more sense to closely examine the people buying large quantities of ammunition, weapons and body armor, rather than skirt the bounds of constitutionality in abusing first and fourth amendment rights via data collection.

The motives for mass violence can vary wildly. But the common denominator is usually the gun itself. Rather than try to get into the heads and emails and phone calls of people who might have bad motives, it makes more sense to stop the problem at its source by making a closer examination of the people with an interest in large arsenals, body armor and ammunition stockpiles.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.