Just last week, I wrote a column about how things in America aren't that bad, and how we should be more grateful for the country we're privileged enough to live in.
Less than a week later, some of the worst qualities of America reared their ugly heads: 49 people were killed and 53 injured inside Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the worst mass shooting in US history. Making matters worse, it appears the crime was intentionally committed against the LGBT community by a man who should have never had a gun, and by a man who pledged allegiance to the radical terrorist organization ISIS.
A failure of gun laws, a public shooting, and hatred against the LGBT community. These things reflect some of America's greatest issues, and most despicable weaknesses.
Finding the silver lining — or "Grain of Saul " — in a mass shooting is a difficult if not impossible task, and even setting out on that goal seems insensitive in many ways to the victims and their families. But as I mulled and mourned this tragedy, one thing did occur to me: that a tragedy like this could finally, for once, provoke real and lasting change.
Make no mistake, I am not advocating for a knee-jerk emotional reaction. On the contrary, we've had far too many "wake up calls" or tragedies that will "inevitably" force change in our country but never do.
Instead, what I'm advocating is that after seeing grade school students, special needs centers, military service members, African American churchgoers and now dozens of members of the LGBT community all slaughtered by firearms, we actually do something.
Perhaps first and foremost is tackling the ease with which Americans can get a firearm.
As has been widely reported, the Orlando shooter had been investigated by the F.B.I. for terror ties, allegedly expressed hatred towards minorities and gays at his day job — and to his father — and according to his ex-wife was an abusive husband with a violent temper. His ex-wife even filed a police report about his abusiveness, instability, and what she described as being "bipolar."
Dan Gilroy, a former police officer who worked with the shooter as a security guard said he spoke about wanting "to kill a whole bunch of people." And unfortunately, this kind of background for a mass shooter in America is not uncommon; at least eight of the 16 gunmen in recent mass shootings have had criminal histories or documented mental health problems.
How can people like this keep getting guns in our country? How can we continue to lead the world in mass shootings without changing how we enforce gun laws, cover the shootings themselves, and protect Americans of all creeds?
The honest answer, if we take a serious look in the mirror, is that the current system continues to fail, and many politicians who can make legislative changes continue to abstain from doing their job.
Fortunately, some moving parts are already doing their jobs.
In January, President Obama used executive actions to improve funding for the Federal Bureau of Investigations and The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) so they could more effectively operate their background check systems. The Social Security Administration has also indicated that it will begin including beneficiaries who "are prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons," a Whitehouse statement said.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was also created by Congress and has kept more than 2 million guns from being purchased by people with criminal histories. They recently clarified that "engaged in the business" of selling firearms includes those being advertised at gun shows or online, forcing such distributors to abide by the ATF laws requiring a license and background checks. Congress has also created incentives for states to add to these databases, which has resulted in an increase of records by 70 percent since the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.
Perhaps most importantly, background checks are becoming more efficient. The NICS had more than 22.2 million background checks in 2015, or 63,000 a day. If a background check comes back clean or takes more than three days to complete, a gun dealer can finish the sale. That's why the existing workforce of the NICS was increased by 50 percent, a move hoping to help identify people that shouldn't be able to purchase firearms in a timely manner.
The reality is that if we want anything to change it needs to be impossible for people like the shooter in Orlando to come anywhere near a legal firearm. Punishment for selling guns illegally should be severe enough that gun owners are discouraged from distributing firearms to someone who hasn't passed that rigorous background check, and histories of violence, mental health issues or articulating harmful intentions should disqualify someone from being able to get a gun.
If you think gun laws are inadequate, when you're finished reading this article use this link to contact politicians and lawmakers to help change the law. It will only take ten minutes and could save thousands of lives.
As some Americas will also point out, the shooter was eventually killed by another gun — this one belonging to an Orlando police officer.
That officer is a hero, and he likely saved more innocent lives because he was well-trained enough with his weapon to stop the mass shooting in a dark, crowded nightclub without hurting any civilians. His heroism should serve as inspiration for gun owners and lawmakers alike to ensure any American wielding a firearm has undergone thorough and adequate training to use it.
And then there is the element of homophobia and transphobia: the Orlando shooter had expressed to his father disgust at seeing men kiss in public, and the target of his shooting — a popular LGBT nightclub — make his intentions quite clear.
Buried in the news when this shooting happened was another near-attack on the LGBT community. An Indiana man was caught Sunday morning, just hours after the attack in Orlando, headed to a pride parade in Los Angeles with three assault rifles, high capacity magazines, ammunition and a five-gallon bucket of chemicals that could have been used for an explosive device.
These stories reflect pockets of hate in America towards the LGBT community, and they are pockets of hate that we must extinguish.
Several bills like North Carolina's House Bill 2 — commonly known as the bathroom bill — openly discriminate against LGBT people and are being pushed through state legislatures. 21 trans women were killed last year, the deadliest year ever for transgender people. Well-known politicians like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio had advocated for conversion therapy, declared homosexuality a lifestyle akin to drinking, and described re-defining marriage as "evil," "wicked" and "sinful."
Our country is too great — and allegedly too "free" — to allow a lack of acceptance for law-abiding citizens of the United States because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. When we as a country let our politicians, religious leaders and pundits speak ill of the LGBT community, or pass laws that disenfranchise them, we reinforce in the minds of the most hateful extremists the ideas they already hold firmly: that those LGBT people don't deserve safety, rights, and sometimes even life.
But just like pushing for gun control reform, there are things we can do to help the LGBT community. If you are tired of wake up calls, tired of knowing the problems but not being a part of the solution, consider doing one of the following:
- Donate blood. Gay and bi-sexual men are still banned from donating blood if they are sexually active, so if you are able you should do your part.
- Volunteer at an LGBT shelter. Sometimes seeing the disenfranchisement of a group is all you need to understand why love and acceptance are so important.
- Follow the lead of National Center for Lesbian Rights executive director Kate Kendall and call for the end of discriminatory laws against LGBT people. You can help do that by contacting your local officials or the office of North Carolina governor Pat McCrory.
- Educate yourself about the laws currently in place that are putting the LGBT community in danger. You can read about them here.