The mass shooting in San Bernardino by the young Muslim couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, now clearly identified as middle-class ISIS terrorists, has created a vast sense of unease in the United States. Everyone agrees that their heinous conduct was horribly wrong. But the consensus ends there. Come to the next question, and there is hopeless disarray on the appropriate collective and individual responses to the looming threat of terrorist acts. It is best to tackle the widespread and diffuse threat of the use of deadly force head-on.
This issue is, of course, not just a domestic one. It is also a question of foreign affairs. The more the United States and its Western allies dither over using ground troops against ISIS, the more mass slaughter and mayhem is committed in the territories under ISIS control. One recent tally has ISIS as having already killed 170,000 just in Iraq. This is a major reason why the refugee flow in Germany alone is expected to reach 1.3 million by year’s end.
None of this carnage has moved the United States and its Western allies to action on the ground. But the killings, first in Paris and now in San Bernardino, have shown that there is no way to wish ISIS away as some distant Middle-Eastern problem. It is now a domestic problem that requires both a global and national response.
Today, an effective Middle East military response is not just a humanitarian imperative; it is also an integral part of our own strategy of national defense. Operating from its secure base will allow ISIS to create, by words and deeds, a trail of death in the United States and elsewhere. The quicker one cuts off the ISIS head—an all-too appropriate metaphor—the easier it will be to attack its appendages in the United States and the rest of the Western world.
Yet in his recent speech on ISIS and the San Bernardino tragedy, the President once again categorically ruled out the use of any sustained ground troops overseas, insisting that he will not put American soldiers in harm’s way for a decade in the effort to take out ISIS. And so the wound is allowed to fester indefinitely by a President who fails to acknowledge the success of the surgeagainst far greater obstacles. In the larger sense, nothing else he says or does can compensate for the horrendous losses attributable to this delay.
The President’s indefinite timetable, of course, makes it ever more imperative, and ever more difficult, to counter the terrorist threat at home. Yet on this issue, it is distressing to see just how far off base the responses from commentators are. For instance, there have been some senseless broad-based attacks on Muslim citizens who are every bit as appalled, if not more so, at the violence committed in their religion’s name. A successful counterterrorist strategy will enlist their support, for they are in the best position to slow down the ISIS recruitment rate and to provide information to public authorities about secret weapon stashes and terrorist cells. It doesn’t help that some Muslim leaders want to place part of the blame on an extremist American foreign policy, as if the slaughter of Muslims by Muslims should be laid at the doorstep of the West. Good relations are very much a two-way street.
Then there’s the matter of gun control. No matter what the state of play is on the ground, gun control advocates around the country think the solution to mass shootings is tougher restrictions on gun access. President Obama leads the charge when he plumps “for common-sense gun safety laws, stronger background checks,” and insists that an effective countermeasure against terror is prohibiting people on no-fly lists from buying guns.
Worse still, many gun control advocates pillory anyone who disagrees with them with invective that it is hard to sort out. Perhaps the most visible attack came from U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, who right after the shooting directed his venom not toward the killers, but to the Republican Party: “Your ‘thoughts’ should be to take steps to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing again.” But do what? According to a New York Times front-page editorial, we should not “abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them.” And further: “It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically.”
Dream on. Moral indignation is never in short supply during such crises, but what is needed is some assurance that the means selected will achieve the desired end. In this case, an inexcusable combination of boorishness and ignorance pushes matters in the wrong direction. The boorishness of people like Senator Murphy undermines the social solidarity needed to boost morale and allow a nation to meet the perils at hand. When people say their thoughts and prayers are with others, they are making a small but vital gesture that tells people who have lost loved ones that they are not alone. To mock that behavior is just a thinly veiled way to attack those who are opposed to new forms of gun control.
Worse still, this level of moral superiority comes from the same people who never once try to meet the substantive arguments against them. Start with the simplest fact that the number of guns in the United States has risen over the past 20 or so years, while at the same time the crime rate has been cut in half. The causes for the drop are doubtless multiple, but at least one factor in the mix is that the wider ownership of guns has changed the ratio of guns in the hands of good and bad people. “More guns, less crime” is no moral incantation, but there are good theoretical reasons why the claim cannot be dismissed with contempt. The prospect that force will be met with force reduces the gains from violence, and thus should thereby reduce the frequency of gun deaths.
The size of this effect is hard to measure, but other arguments against gun control reinforce the basic conclusion. A recent catalogue of the objections to gun control laws was forcibly advanced by Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, who notes that California’s tough gun laws did nothing to stop Farook and Malik, who also were not on any no-fly list. Sadly, no scheme, however elaborate, can prevent guns from falling into the hands of the wrong people—see France. The Wall Street Journal ran asimilar article noting how easy it is to convert legal weapons with limited capacity into automatic weapons that are far more deadly.
But even if gun control had a 100 percent effectiveness rate of stopping these kinds of shootings, the risk of terrorist attacks, both local and global, remains. Palestinians use knife attacks with deadly effect against Israelis. People can also be killed with blunt instruments or by strangulation and arson. Worse still, guns are not the most efficient weapons to use for mass killings. It was a truck-bomb explosion outside the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City that left 168 people dead and injured 680 more in 1995. It was jet planes that killed thousands on 9/11. And if Farook and Malik had even modest competence in manufacturing their pipe bombs and other explosives, the toll of death and injuries in San Bernardino would have been much higher. The sad truth is that any set of strict gun control laws at either the federal or state level are likely to divert resources that are better spent elsewhere, while doing nothing to reduce the death toll from terrorist attacks, which might well increase. It is not enough to do something. It is critical to do something effective.
And it is here that the story turns back to Iraq. In both Iraq and the United States, a comprehensive strategy against terrorism must involve the use of greater force on the ground. But sending troops to California is not the answer. Ramping up protection at home is. Some portion of that burden will of course fall on our armed police forces. But the key element in this battle could well be a transformation in the attitude toward concealed weapons. In Israel, it is common practice for off-duty police and military personnel to carry concealed handguns or other weapons. The same approach should be adopted in the United States for it is the only remedy that is likely to provide a credible first response to a terrorist attack.
The great weakness of gun control laws is that they try to attack the problem at a time and place far in advance of any actual attack. The precautions that are used apply to lawful and dangerous gun users alike. No matter what the checks, it is all too easy for the bad apples to escape detection. The tragedy is that later on, at the point of the actual attack, it is easy to identify the killers, but a defenseless crowd is unable to do anything but flee in response. But put even one random person with a gun in the room, and now the attackers face immediate resistance long before the police arrive in force. Because the weapons won’t be in the hands of rank amateurs, it is highly unlikely that the off-duty officers or military personnel will compound the problem by foolish actions. Stopping or slowing down an attack by taking out an assailant could save many lives.
In addition, guns in defense are not only good against assailants with guns; they can also take out attackers who are using explosives or grenades. It is therefore harder for terrorists or criminals to switch weapons in order to escape resistance. Indeed, the prospect that there may be someone on site who can actually fight back should serve as a deterrent against random terrorist attacks to begin with. The bigger the terrorist target, the larger the number of armed officers should be. Since, moreover, no single central authority will know the exact location of the police and military officials carrying concealed weapons, it becomes far more difficult for terrorists or suicidal maniacs to develop plans to avoid confrontation in the first place. The actual cost to the public budget is low, and the probable effectiveness is greater than that of any alternative strategy.
It is no coincidence that those who will recoil against this proposal are the same people who think that the U.S. and its allies should avoid boots on the ground in Iraq. Their timidity in the face of armed mayhem compounds the risks our nation faces. Our misguided gun control champions have to do more than insist that we should try some new gun-control gimmick to make things better. They have to come forward with some concrete plan that works not only in some idealized universe, but in the evermore dangerous environment that we face at home. If we do not arm off-duty officers, San Bernardino could easily become the opening chapter in an ever-lengthening tragedy. In this battle, force must be met with force; better background checks just won’t cut it.
*Considered one of the most influential thinkers in legal academia, Richard Epstein is known for his research and writings on a broad range of constitutional, economic, historical, and philosophical subjects.