Two weeks ago, a shooter entered a Parkland, Florida high school and killed 17 individuals. The shooter was identified as Nikolas Cruz, a young white man who “showed every red flag.” Not only did Cruz reportedly get expelled for bringing a knife to school, he had also joined a white supremacist group in Florida. Furthermore, the FBI received numerous tips about Cruz, but failed to act on a single one.
Cruz was just the latest white mass shooter over the past four decades. In fact, the majority of shooters between 1982 and 2016 have been white males. But, yet again, another shooting committed by a white supremacist is being treated as an inconvenient truth, and one that seems to have no bearing on the policy solutions being proposed to address mass violence in the United States. It seems that a perpetrator’s identity is only relevant if the individual is Muslim or a person of color. Muslim identity or the identity of a person of color are evidently the only ones embedded with a de facto and inherent motivation and propensity to commit acts of violence.
That reasoning is likely what prompted a bipartisan group of senators to re-introduce legislation this week that would prevent those on the Transportation Security Administration’s No Fly List from purchasing a gun, instead of addressing white supremacist violence or the calls for gun control from student victims of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
This legislation was first introduced after the Orlando shooting in 2016 and some might argue that, intuitively, it makes sense. After all, why would anyone want a “suspected terrorist” to be able to purchase a gun?
This question, however, makes two critical, and problematic, assumptions: that those on the No Fly List are on the list for legitimate suspicions, and that the No Fly List would have actually stopped shooters like Cruz.
According to a 2016 article by Wired, the watch list from which the No Fly List is derived has about 1 million names on it at this point. The FBI says this list is “one of the most effective counterterrorism tools for the US government.” But Cruz would not have been on this list because the FBI ignored tips that Cruz was dangerous — including a tip from a hotline that he had the “desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts.”
Why are senators so quick to reintroduce a bill that does little to actually address gun violence? There is the fact that the bill was first introduced after the Orlando shooting — an act of mass violence perpetrated by a Muslim who was reportedly taken off the terrorist watch list. In this instance, it was deemed appropriate to utilize a counter-terrorism tactic that targets Muslims, while allowing politicians to evade the other well-known causes of violence, from toxic masculinity, to white supremacy, to histories of domestic violence — factors that were all also at play in the case of the Orlando shooter.
The second reason is because the No Fly List targets, in large part, South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims, reinforcing the notion that Muslims are the ones who commit shootings. Consider also that the list is treated as legitimate despite the fact that its inherent discrimination is well-known and that in order for someone to be placed on the list, the individual doesn’t have to be charged or convicted of a crime. In fact, the list also includes babies and the elderly, as well as countless law-abiding citizens, flagged simply for their Muslim-sounding names. In this way, using the No Fly List sends the message that the gun problem is related to Muslims and people of color — an obvious attempt to obscure the group most responsible for gun violence, white men.
Perhaps the most important reason politicians are using this tactic is to deflect attention away from their inaction and apathy — both of which have contributed to more mass shootings in the country. This point could not have been clearer than when Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a CNN town hall event if he would vow to stop taking money from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Rubio dodged the question and changed the subject to his support for anti-terrorism measures.
The leadership of survivors from Parkland and their advocacy, which has turned into a movement resulting in student walkouts across the country, should inspire all of us to do more to address the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings. Rather than scapegoating our communities, let’s continue to support students’ demands of showing up for the March For Our Lives mobilization on the National Mall on March 24th, student organizing against gun violence, comprehensive gun reform that doesn’t scapegoat communities, and work towards ensuring that schools and community spaces are safe spaces.
Dr. Maha Hilal is co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, and a council member of School of the Americas Watch. Darakshan Raja is co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, and is a board member of South Asians Leading Together and the board of trustees for the Consumer Health Foundation.