After one of the many mass shootings to plague America in recent years, my wife stopped listening to the radio and drastically cut down her news consumption. I don't remember which shooting was the final straw for her, which is a sad testament to how regular an occurrence such attacks have become. But she learned about the murder of 50 people in Orlando early Sunday morning before I did, thanks to repeated news alerts from my phone.
At about 2 a.m. on Sunday, suspected shooter Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old Florida security guard born in New York to Afghan immigrant parents, entered Pulse, a gay nightclub celebrating its weekly "Upscale Latin Saturdays" party, and began shooting. After he began murdering people at random with an AR-15-style rifle and a 9mm handgun he bought legally in the past few days, Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS; ISIS later called Mateen "an Islamic State fighter." Some patrons escaped, and the gunman held at least 30 people hostage until a SWAT team rushed the club and killed Mateen in a gunfight.
It is being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, because one man with two guns killed so many people. But every mass killing is the worst if someone you loved was murdered. Every mass shooting has its own terrible wrinkle, too, and this one is that gays and lesbians were the evident target — Mateen's father and a coworker both say the shooter was a violent homophobe. Islamist terrorism and anti-LGBT violence aren't at all mutually exclusive — ISIS murders gay men in territory it occupies in Syria and Iraq. But "the uncertainty over Mateen's alleged motive for the attack," says McClatchey's James Rosen, has "left analysts confused about through which lens the deaths of 50 people and the wounding of 53 others should be viewed." Homegrown Islamic terrorism? Violent attacks on gays and lesbians? A gun control issue?
The answer is yes. It is all those things.
There is no good way to learn that 50 bright lives have been violently and senselessly snuffed out. And maybe there is no perfect reaction. But there are predictable responses, and pretty much everybody has hit their marks: President Obama and other Democrats said the mass shooting shows the need for "common sense" gun regulation; Republicans immediately blamed the shooting on the scourge of "radical Islamic terrorism"; somehow, Donald Trump managed to make the attack about himself; as with previous mass shootings, the NRA's initial response has been silence, but eventually the main gun-rights lobbying group will find some way to argue that guns aren't the problem. For the NRA, guns are never the problem — people are the problem, and guns are the solution.
However you choose to frame the Orlando massacre, it's pretty clear the U.S. has a real problem with mass shootings. American policymakers should put aside their differences and try to come up with solutions — that's what we hire them for, after all — but recent history makes believing they will do anything seem hopelessly naive. "Instead of good coming out of this it is polarizing an already polarizing electorate during a hyper-polarized election," said John Hudak at the Brookings Institution.
Just like the politicians in Washington, you probably have some strong opinions about mass shootings and some ideas about what we can do to prevent them. But it's time we start asking ourselves: What are we willing to give up to stanch the mass bloodletting?
The suspected shooter in Sunday's attack had been interviewed by the FBI twice in the past three years over suspected (though never substantiated) ties to Islamist terrorists. It is a strange policy choice to allow someone reportedly on a terrorist watch list to legally buy a civilian version of an M16 military rifle. As President Obama put it, the Orlando massacre is "a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub." He added: "We have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well."
Let's talk about decisions. And compromise. Because while Obama is right — doing nothing is a choice — there seem to be only two ways to do something in this dysfunctional political moment: Go insignificantly small, or go big. And big in this case means giving everyone in Congress enough of what they want that they will allow for the things they do not want. Maybe enough Republicans will accept expanded background checks and closing the gun show loophole, for example, if Democrats accept stricter domestic surveillance measures or a dialing back of accepting Syrian refugees.
What would you give up to make these mass shootings disappear, or at least become a lot more rare? Gun enthusiasts, would you be willing to give up large-capacity magazines or even certain type of long guns in return for a big expansion of mental health services? Civil libertarians, would you accept more invasive surveillance in exchange for increased protections for gays and lesbians or less punitive sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders? Gun safety advocates, would you be alright with limits on violence in video games if it means modest new gun regulations?
Like many Americans, I think at least modest new guns laws are an obvious imperative, and I'm frustrated that Congress won't pass any. But I don't run the world, and neither do you, and the NRA isn't going away anytime soon.
And like most Americans, I'm struggling to keep these mass shootings from starting to seem normal. Is there a point at which enough will be enough? Is there a massacre bad enough that Washington does something? And if so, what compromises are we willing to make? We may not want to have that conversation, but at this point, there aren't any other better bad options on the table.