- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
U.S. policymakers and law enforcement agencies are still considering what could have been done to foil Omar Mateen’s deadly attack on an Orlando night club in the early hours of June 12. The FBI reportedly examined links in 2013 and in 2014 that Mateen may have had to terrorist groups, but found nothing to warrant arrest. Karen Greenberg, Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, says stricter gun laws and new civil society programs could help prevent these types of mass killings. “Profiling is probably not the way that’s going to help prevent or solve these types of crimes. There should be an assault weapons ban sooner rather than later,” Greenberg says.
Were there missed opportunities to foil this attack?
Not that we know of right now. We need to wait and see what the FBI investigation uncovers. But this issue is also about guns, particularly access to assault weapons, and about a rise in the number of youth that are willing and able to commit acts of mass violence.
It’s really hard, with an unbalanced individual like Mateen, to know what’s going to incite them to violence. And while authorities say this was planned because he had the weapons, who knows the degree of planning? With a lone wolf, whether it’s ISIS or somebody who wants to attack a church or a school, there’s often just a level of emotional chaos that overwhelms the individual. And if they don’t have access to assault weapons then the damage they do is going to be exponentially less because there’s time and space to disarm and disrupt.
So stricter gun laws are what’s needed?
This is about guns and hate crimes, and the ability to weaponize hate, which we have made way too easy. This guy killed many more with a gun than the Boston bombers did with a bomb. He killed more in this attack than in all terrorism attacks since 9/11 in this country.
Is there any way to stop lone-wolf shooters, especially when their guns are legally obtained?
Although we’ve gone the preventive route in terms of profiling for fifteen years—since 9/11—we’ve learned that assault weapons are everything in terms of this. Profiling is probably not going to help prevent or solve these types of crimes. There should be an assault weapons ban sooner rather than later.
What else can be done to deter acts like this?
There needs to be some type of civil society program or organization that provides an "off-ramp" where law enforcement can direct people like Mateen. This would be a program for individuals who they don’t think should be kept on their radar as an imminent threat. So, in Mateen’s case, this program could have stepped in between the time the FBI closed its investigation and the Orlando attack. This type of organization would be embedded in civil society and deal with individuals who are on the verge of going down the path that we know can lead to violence. We have [Department of Homeland Security] counter violent extremism programs, but we need a much greater array of programs.
What’s your impression of Omar Mateen from what we know? How does he seem to compare to perpetrators of the San Bernardino attacks or other acts of mass violence in the United States?
The nature of his attachment to ISIS beyond the 911 call [declaring his allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State] is still unknown. He’s older than most others that commit these types of acts. Like most of them, he is also a U.S. citizen and was raised Muslim—not a convert. He has some history of emotional instability. He’s recently divorced, though not as recent as some of the others who went through life-altering events. He was attracted, in some ways, to a profession that would utilize a gun. A number of people who have been indicted for these crimes are individuals who tried in one way or another to either join the military or get some kind of weapons training.
What are some of the questions that you’re looking to have answered as this investigation unfolds?
A couple things: Was there any more connection to ISIS than what we know—that is, a tangential, somewhat nebulous connection? And what kind of civil society structures do we need to be able to step in where law enforcement can’t, and to be able to understand how to deal with mental health and the determination to commit acts of violence in a way that’s constructive and that makes us all safer?