Within the last two weeks, the country has seen the two deadliest mass shootings of the year, both committed by 18-year-olds. The motive for Tuesday’s attack on elementary school children in Uvalde, Texas, is still unknown. But the motive for the Buffalo attack appears clear from the online screed left by the accused attacker. Influenced by the “great replacement theory,” he sought to kill as many Black people as he could. Ten died.
This is terrorism by definition: the use of violence to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence government policy. In the United States, it is often accomplished using semiautomatic weapons.
Permissive gun laws and easy access to firearms make the United States a prime target for firearms-based terrorist attacks like the one in Buffalo. They subject the population to the constant threat of mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults were fatally shot. Whether that shooting ultimately meets the statutory definition of terrorism or not, it certainly has terrified people nationwide, raising fears yet again that children are at risk, even in their schools, by a violence abetted by the ready availability of semiautomatic weapons.
In Buffalo, the shooter was armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle. Officials have yet to say if the Texas shooter used a semiautomatic weapon or weapons; news media have reported that he bought two of them for his recent 18th birthday.
Along with dozens of former national security and law enforcement officials, I warned about the dangers of “unfettered access to firearms” in a brief filed with the Supreme Court in the latest gun case to come before the justices, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen.
That pending case concerns restrictions on carrying concealed firearms. But whether the gun is concealed or not, there is no question that the ready availability of guns in the United States challenges not only public safety but also national security. The United States must treat the easy access to semiautomatic weapons as the national security threat it is.
Foreign terrorist organizations have long urged their followers to take advantage of lax U.S. gun laws to plan attacks in the United States.
In 2017, an Islamic State propaganda video featured a reportedly American fighter, wearing fatigues and a holstered pistol, urging sympathizers in the United States to “take advantage of the fact that you can easily obtain a rifle or a pistol in America” and “spray” the infidels “with bullets.” A prominent American Al Qaeda recruit urged potential recruits in a 2011 video to “go down to a gun show at a local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?” The people who killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, and 49 in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 — and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State — committed their carnage using semiautomatic firearms.
As the attacks make clear, these types of military-style weapons are not used only by those who commit mass shootings in the name of foreign terrorist groups.
The person accused of the Buffalo shooting got out of his vehicle in front of the Tops supermarket looking as if he were entering a war zone. He wore body armor, tactical gear and a helmet. He carried a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic rifle, modified to hold high-capacity magazines. He had a shotgun and a rifle in his car for backup.
But he didn’t need the backup weapons to quickly shoot four people in the parking lot, killing three of them. He didn’t need them to kill a security guard inside the store whose own firearm was no match for the body armor. Nor did he need them to shoot several other people inside the store. The semiautomatic assault-style rifle, reportedly purchased at a small gun store for less than $1,000, was all he needed to commit his massacre.
Other attackers who espoused white-supremacist beliefs, like the man charged with killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and another accused of killing more than 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, used semiautomatic firearms. So did the white-supremacist gunman who killed nine Black worshipers at a church in South Carolina in 2015.
Military-style weapons and gear are also the calling cards of extremist private militias in the United States, whose anti-government ideology and insurrectionist view of the Second Amendment has driven a rise in intimidation and coercion.
Unauthorized and unlawful, these private militias encourage their members to own assault-style rifles. They often wear military-style equipment (similar to the Buffalo shooting suspect’s) and train in paramilitary techniques. Armed militia members have forced their way into state capitols in Boise, Idaho, and Lansing, Mich. They have usurped the role of law enforcement, purporting to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and engaging in vigilante border patrols in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Militia members were among those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, seeking to disrupt the counting of the Electoral College votes, and were reportedly prepared to call on a heavily armed “Quick Reaction Force” just outside Washington.
The concealed-weapon case awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court presents the first significant Second Amendment issue to be considered by the justices since 2008. Although it involves a challenge to the validity of New York’s longstanding concealed-carry restrictions, the arguments advanced by the challengers, if accepted, could call other gun-safety restrictions into question. The signatories of the national security brief — including former career and politically appointed national security officials, were united in urging the court to consider the national-security and public-safety threats posed by easy access to firearms.
This warning is not new.
Nicholas Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, warned as he was stepping down in 2017, “We find ourselves in a more dangerous situation because our population of violent extremists has no difficulty gaining access to weapons that are quite lethal.” And in early 2021, Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, told a Senate committee that racially motivated violent extremism was “the biggest chunk of our domestic terrorism portfolio” overall, with “militia violent extremists” trending.
Second Amendment absolutists are fond of saying, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But a security guard at the Tops supermarket — a 30-year veteran of the Buffalo police — had a gun. He used it. But it was no match for body armor and an assault weapon. National security and public safety require far more than a good guy with a gun. They require effective regulation over access to these weapons.
Mary B. McCord, the executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, was the acting assistant attorney general for national security from 2016 to 2017 and a federal prosecutor for 20 years. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.