Insisting that Syrian refugees are "the great Trojan Horse of all time," Donald Trump has proposed "extreme vetting" for incoming refugees. Trump, along with many other legislators and pundits have characterized immigrants and refugees from war torn countries as threats to "law and order." The xenophobic rhetoric appeals to Americans who believe that foreigners take jobs, increase crime, and more recently, perpetrate acts of homegrown terrorism like the mass shootings in Orlando or San Bernardino. More than the fact that immigrants have a lower crime rate than native born Americans, the "Trojan Horse" narrative is dangerous because it contributes to bigotry and hate crimes, misdirects national priorities, and importantly, makes us less safe by obscuring the more significant threat of gun violence in America.
Undoubtedly, certain individuals want to harm Americans in acts of terrorism, but what constitutes "terrorism" is open to interpretation. While the term describes various acts, groups, and ideologies that endorse violence to achieve political ends, in the United States it has been made synonymous with foreign and dark skinned people. Type "terrorist" into Google image search and you see bearded men of dark complexion invariably wearing a head scarf. Americans fail to conceive of terrorists as white American men like Timothy McVeigh and Dylann Roof. This is despite the fact that since September 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists than by dark skinned Muslims.
This bigotry justifies an array of costly programs run by numerous federal agencies organized around fighting "foreign" enemies. The differing perspectives show the lack of consensus around what precipitates acts of mass violence in the United States. What causes mass shootings is complex and derives from several factors. Some of my own research highlights the harmful understanding of masculinity, which commonly justifies violence as a means of settling disputes and a way to enact a sense of manhood. Mental illness, white supremacy, misogyny, and fundamentalists who call for violence are also factors. Crucial to understand is that we still do not have an understanding of what motivates an individual (of any race) to become radicalized to the point of conducting mass violence. According to the Intercept, a 2012 FBI study (which corroborates scholarship) found that it is nearly impossible to predict future violent acts because there is no coherent pattern to "radicalization."
Nevertheless, we know very well that guns kill people. While ISIS dominates headlines and government priorities, we continue to kill ourselves in far greater number than any foreign-born enemy does because of the lethality and proliferation of guns in the United States. Everyday within the US, we lose more than 90 Americans to gun violence. When more guns abound in a particular region or context, there are higher rates of suicide, homicide, and unintentional shootings. Even police officers are also more likely to be killed when there are higher rates of gun ownership in that region.
Moreover, Americans must recognize is that even though domestic terrorism is not new, especially for non-white Americans, it is new for Americans to experience domestic terrorism in the age of assault weapon proliferation. 9/11 was orchestrated with impeccable planning, organization and resources by a highly trained group, whereas the Orlando nightclub shooting was relatively basic given that for one person with few resources and training, killed dozens because of easy access to guns. Mass shootings have become more common in the United States because guns are so lethal and relatively easy to access. Consider a recent report by a journalist who needed all of seven minutes to procure an assault weapon. In addition, as New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi discovered in her interviews with fighters who joined ISIS, the group in fact knows that our gun laws are "dumb" and that ISIS has "a great advantage in the U.S." In Europe ISIS must search for recruits with criminal backgrounds whereas in the US, it's easier to do harm because of the easy access to guns.
A concern with homegrown terrorism is understandable, but if "law and order" and our safety are truly our concern--not xenophobia and bigotry--we must see that we are far less safe when people have such easy access to guns. The terrifying randomness of terrorism using guns can be quickly reduced if we understand terrorism not as a threat from a refugee or brown skinned person with a Middle Eastern sounding last name, but rather, as a relatively easy horror to pull off within a gun saturated society.
The prevention of mass shootings by anyone should generate the will necessary to make weapons of war less accessible. We can support Brady 2.0 (expanded background checks), a ban military assault weapons, limits on high capacity magazines, closing the terror gap (no fly, no buy), repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce Arms Act (PLCAA), and lifting the ban on Center for Disease Control's gun violence research. The immediate goal of "law and order" efforts should be the elimination of easy to access weapons of war within the United States, not immigrants or people coming from war-torn countries. Sensible gun legislation is well within our control, especially if we effectively leverage the bipartisan concern for homegrown terrorism for the right reasons.
R. Tyson Smith is a sociologist at Muhlenberg College. Po Murray is the Chair of the Newtown Action Alliance.