Bigotry and national security have, sadly, close and old ties in American history. National-security concerns mixed with anti-Semitism delayed our acceptance of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Racism combined with panic after Pearl Harbor led to the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans. This year, in the name of national security, we have allowed at least 117 people to die in the desert rather than welcome them across our southern border, and over the past decade have wrenched at least 2 million people from their families with a record-setting pace of deportation. Throughout our history, these kinds of inhumane policy choices have been sold with dehumanizing rhetoric about those we define as threats.
So while Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is shameful, it’s best understood as the extreme expression of a dangerous theme in American politics—one that has dominated the Republican primary. It’s in this context that 11 of the 13 GOP presidential candidates oppose allowing any Syrian refugees into the country at all. The two who think otherwise—Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz—would admit only the Christian ones. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose standing in the polls has risen in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, has said that even Syrian orphans under the age of 5 represent a potential danger and should be turned away.
More Americans put terrorism at the top of their concerns today than at any time since 9/11, according to a recent poll by The New York Times. There is no denying the threat posed by the Islamic State and those whom it inspires—a threat felt most acutely by Muslims in Syria and Iraq, we must stress. But as Robert Dear reminded us when he killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic just days before Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 in San Bernardino, extremist violence comes in many forms. According to a study by the New America Foundation, more Americans have been killed in domestic terrorist attacks by right-wing zealots than by jihadists since 9/11.
What all of these attacks have in common is neither religion nor national identity, but weaponry. The terror that most urgently threatens our safety today is that of guns. Commentators are now debating what constitutes a “mass shooting.” One standard counts any incident in which four or more people are killed or injured by gunfire; by this measure, there have been 353 mass shootings in 350 days so far this year. Another counts only those incidents in which four or more people are killed; by this measure, there have been 22 mass shootings so far this year in the United States—a world-leading statistic. But whichever number you choose, it’s still too many, and it doesn’t even take into account the daily toll of individuals killed by gun violence. More than 400,000 people were killed by guns between the 9/11 attacks and 2013, the most recent year for which data are available. We are so awash in shooting deaths that these lost lives don’t even register as news.
The firearms industry’s defenders, posing as civil libertarians, have responded to growing calls for more gun control by peddling the idea that no amount of regulation will guarantee that killers can’t kill. This truism is hardly a reason to make mass murder easier. It’s no reason to allow the legal possession of high-capacity magazines designed to facilitate rapid, indiscriminate firing. It’s no argument against universal background checks as a basic provision for purchasing a deadly weapon, no justification for the fact that it’s easier to buy a gun than to cast a vote in some states.
Americans are rightly concerned about violence, whether that comes in the form of terrorist attacks or quotidian shootings. The Trumps of the world would like us to channel this fear into irrational bigotry; it would be better harnessed as outrage against the firearms industry’s grasp on our lawmakers. Until our political leaders find the courage to fight a war on guns, we will all live with the daily threat of gun terror.