Blood is on my mind today. Forty-nine people: 49 bodies moving to the beat of the music, 49 hearts pulsing with joy on a dance floor. But the bullets, shot at high velocity from an assault weapon, put a stop to all that life, all that revelry.
This could have happened in any club in the United States on any Saturday night, but this was a gay club in Orlando on a Saturday night in June. Pride Month.
And this could have been any other mass shooting in America—there have been 126 this year alone—but the perpetrator was Omar Mateen, a security guard who, his father told news sources, became angered by the sight of two men kissing.
Every time I hear about a mass shooting, my mind reels with incomprehension. How is it still legal to buy an assault rifle in this country after Columbine, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook? The answer, I know, lies in the millions of dollars that so many of our representatives in Congress take from the National Rifle Association. That’s why we get thoughts and prayers after every mass shooting instead of gun legislation.
And we get speculation. If the shooter had access to mental healthcare, he might not have done it. If a good guy with a gun had been there, the bad guy might have been stopped.
But the attack in Orlando—where the shooter was Muslim and a security guard at the nightclub did have a gun—has shifted the script. Instead of speculation about guns or mental health, we get speculation about the shooter’s religion. If Mateen hadn’t been inspired by ISIS, he wouldn’t have done it. If his religion didn’t condone killing, he wouldn’t have done it. So much rides on a conditional clause.
Early on Sunday morning, an Indiana man by the name of James Howell was arrested in Santa Monica after residents called the police to report suspicious behavior. Howell told investigators that he was on his way to the gay-pride parade in West Hollywood. In the trunk of his car were three assault weapons and chemicals that can be used to make explosives. When I heard this news, I felt relieved for all the people who were able to march safely in West Hollywood. But I also wondered what would have happened if Howell hadn’t been caught. Would he have been called a terrorist, too, or just a crazed lone wolf?
Because Mateen told police that he’d pledged allegiance to ISIS, Islamic fundamentalism was initially considered to be his sole motivation. But it later emerged that he had a profile on a gay-dating app, that he was a regular visitor to the Pulse nightclub, and that when he was still in school, he had asked one of his male classmates on a date. Similar revelations about James Howell followed. An ex-boyfriend told authorities that Howell had struggled over their relationship and had pointed a gun at him. Whatever complicated mix of factors motivated both men, one thread ties them together: access to assault weapons. Eliminating bigotry, toward the self or toward the other, is a lifelong struggle that has to be fought on cultural, social, and religious grounds. But we must not lose sight of the fact that assault weapons can turn any bigot into a mass murderer.