Members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation said Monday that assault weapons have become the common ingredient in the string of mass shootings that culminated with the worst one in U.S. history early Sunday in Orlando.
An American-born man, who had reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State during a 911 call moments before the shooting, used an AR-15 assault rifle and a handgun to kill 49 people and wound another 53 at a nightclub frequented by members of the LGBT community in Orlando. The man, Omar Mateen, 29, of Fort Pierce, Fla., was shot and killed by police in what is being called the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11.
Immediately after the rampage, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal called Congress “complicit” in the shootings, saying lawmakers’ inaction on gun control was to blame for the continuing mass murders that have occurred since Sandy Hook across the country.
On Monday, they held a follow-up Hartford news conference with U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty during which they called for the passage of “common sense” gun legislation at the federal level, and also for unity and an end to hateful rhetoric, which Murphy described as a “gift” to the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts.
The three lawmakers said Monday that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough, that it’s time for action. They also said hateful rhetoric — including comments from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — are fueling the fire of recruitment for the Islamic State within the United States.
“ISIS is on the retreat inside Iraq and Syria today,” Murphy said. “They are losing ground by the day. And so ISIS’ ability to survive is now reliant on its ability to move the fight outside of Iraq and Syria and into Europe and into the United States. ISIS can only survive if they find lone-wolf attackers like Omar Mateen.”
Murphy said the question for Congress is, how do we prevent ISIS from being successful in recruiting people like Mateen into their ranks?
“Rhetoric like we have heard in the last 48 hours, blaming this tragedy on the Muslim faith, plays into ISIS’ hands,” Murphy said. “It’s important that we ban assault weapons, but I would argue that it’s even more important that we come together as a community to provide no more recruitment material for ISIS to gather future lone-wolf attackers.”
Murphy, who was echoed by Blumenthal and Esty, singled out Trump.
“Donald Trump’s rhetoric is another gift to ISIS,” Murphy said. “And his irresponsible behavior over the course of the last 48 hours, suggesting that the president may secretly support these attacks, or reiterating his call to ban all Muslims from this country — that plays into the hands of ISIS when it is trying to convince people in this country that they live on the margins of our society. We have to double down on inclusiveness and tolerance in the wake of this attack. And that’s just as important as the work we’re going to do to harden our defenses and tighten our gun laws.”
According to news reports, in 2013 Mateen was interviewed twice by federal agents after co-workers reported that he made “inflammatory” comments about radical Islamic propaganda. The following year the FBI reportedly looked at him again because of ties with an American who traveled to the Middle East to become a suicide bomber.
Mateen was temporarily placed on the terrorist watch list, and he later legally purchased his firearms in the weeks leading up to the shooting.
“Assault weapons are becoming the weapon of choice for terrorists in this country,” Murphy said. “Would-be terrorists are not sitting in their basement making bombs. They are walking into gun stores and purchasing assault weapons legally. Why on earth would we facilitate the work of ISIS to find lone-wolf attackers in the United States by continuing to arm them with military-style weapons? The legality of military-style assault weapons is a gift to ISIS that we continue to give them.”
Blumenthal, who spoke first Monday, said Congress must pass a measure that says: no fly, no gun.
“But at the center of what is needed, in my view, is a ban on assault weapons,” Blumenthal said. “A ban on assault weapons is necessary now to stop the murderous and repeated use of these weapons of war. They are weapons of destruction designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible, and that’s why they are used repeatedly in these mass murders, including Sandy Hook. As well as Virginia Tech. And Aurora. And other acts of mass violence around the country. A ban on assault weapons is necessary now.”
Blumenthal said he championed Connecticut’s ban on assault weapons in 1993, and then defended the ban in court.
“It has since been revised to be more effective,” Blumenthal said. “It existed at the federal level between 1994 and 2004. It must now be reimposed. If there’s a lesson from these murderous acts of destruction it is that assault weapons are at the center of many of these acts.”
Esty said it is “unconscionable” that Congress has not acted prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.
“Let’s be very clear. This young man was interviewed twice. Temporarily placed on the watch list,” Esty said. “And yet even if he’d stayed on that watch list, he would have been allowed to buy those guns. That makes no sense. We need to stop the madness in Congress. Congress needs to act.”
Months after the Newtown shooting, the Senate in 2013 failed to pass a measure expanding background checks on firearm purchases. The amendment fell four votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to start debate on the bill.
In December 2015, Senate Republicans rejected an amendment to a bill (seeking to repeal Obamacare) that would have blocked suspected or known terrorists from buying guns.
“It makes absolutely no sense that if you have had an intersection with the FBI that causes you to be denied access to a plane, that you would still be able to walk into a gun store and buy hundreds of rounds of ammunitions and dozens of guns,” Murphy said. “That makes absolutely no sense.
“Now critics will tell you that there are people on the terrorist watch list that should be there, and that’s right. But there’s a process to get your name off of it,” Murphy said. “The default position should be, that if you have been suspected of being involved with terrorists by the FBI, that you should have your right to buy a complicated, military-style firearm at least temporarily suspended.”
All three politicians said the one good thing that may come out of the mass murder in Orlando is that the shooting may have created a bipartisan consensus that it is time to act on a new assault weapons ban, and other related legislation. All three said there is no single solution to gun violence.
“My hope is that this tragedy will provide the impetus and momentum that is necessary now, that there will be a change in the political dynamic, because truly this historic act of terror and hatred must be a tipping point for our nation in this long battle that we have fought for common sense, sensible measures against gun violence,” Blumenthal said. “We must see a nation unified behind action now.”
Blumenthal also said he’d been speaking to colleagues in Washington, including Republicans, since the shooting in Orlando.
“I think there is a new consciousness, an awakening, about the threat of gun violence in America, particularly from these cancerous, murderous, public health threats in assault weapons,” Blumenthal said, adding that “the nation wants action.”
It isn’t just the Democratic politicians renewing their outrage over assault weapons.
Josh Koskoff, the lawyer representing several Sandy Hook families in their lawsuit against the manufacturer, distributor and seller of the AR-15 used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown, said: “The massacre of innocent civilians in Orlando is more horrific evidence of the unique lethality of the AR-15. It is no wonder that this weapon was chosen by the shooter, as it has been by so many before him and as it undoubtedly will be again.
“It was designed for the United States military to do enemies of war exactly what it did: kill mass numbers of people with maximum efficiency and ease,” Koskoff said.
But not everyone agrees that an assault weapon ban is the answer to ending the mass killings.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said his group is still thinking about the victims, while “Senators Blumenthal and Murphy are more concerned with advancing their political careers. Once again our two senators are calling for more laws that would only impact persons who actually obey the laws of our society. In Florida it is illegal to carry a firearm into any portion of an establishment that serves alcoholic beverages. Again, a murderer ignored the laws.”
Sunday morning’s massacre in Orlando “is something that is very personal to our state,” Esty said before informing reporters that one of the victims was from her district.
Esty said one of the victims was Kimberly “KJ” Morris, 37, who moved to Orlando from Torrington just a few months ago. She took a job at the Pulse nightclub as a bouncer, according to the Orlando Sentinel.