For their rapid and measured responses to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, the federal agencies operating at the scene in Orlando, Fla., this weekend have impressed observers on both sides of the national debate over gun control.
Led by the FBI, the federal presence alongside state and local law enforcement includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; some elements of the Homeland Security Department; the Justice Department’s National Security Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and its Community Relations Service.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch cut short a trip to China and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson canceled a planned trip to Beijing, where both officials were scheduled to attend talks on cybersecurity.
In its role supporting the FBI, the ATF announced on Sunday that it had traced the weapons used by 29-year-old shooter Omar Mateen to murder some 49 people in a gay nightclub while injuring more than 50 more. The firearms used in the massacre, a .223 caliber AR type rifle and 9mm semiautomatic pistol, were legally purchased, the ATF tweeted.
The shooter was “not a prohibited person, so he can legally walk into a gun dealership and acquire and purchase firearms,” said ATF Assistant Special Agent in charge Trevor Velinor. “He did so. And he did so within the last week or so.” The gunman was killed by law enforcement officers inside the nightclub.
FBI Director James Comey at midday on Monday said at a press conference at FBI headquarters that his team is working nonstop “trying to understand every moment of the killer’s path” leading up to the shooting early Sunday morning. Comey described the gunman’s three 911 phone calls in which he claimed allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State as well as the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack and a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria for a terrorist group in conflict with ISIS.
He also reviewed the past interviews the bureau had conducted with the gunman, a private security guard, in 2013 and 2014 after complaints surfaced that he had issued threats of violence. The investigations produced no actionable results.
“There are strong indications of radicalization by this killer and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorism organizations,” Comey said. “We’re also going to look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently. So far, the honest answer is: I don’t think so.”
Though the FBI appears confident that the gunman became radicalized online, Comey was not ready to assign motives. “The bombers at the Boston Marathon and the suicide bomber from Florida were not inspired by ISIL, which adds a little bit to the confusion about his motives,” he said. “And of course, we are working to understand what role anti-gay bigotry may have played in motivating this attack, an attack that occurred during the very month when we recognize and celebrate our LGBT brothers and sisters.”
Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told Government Executive, “There’s only so much the two agencies can do from our perspective because the gunman was killed at the scene, and there’s no loose gunman,” he said. “ATF’s central task was to trace the firearms, and they did do that in an expeditious manner. The FBI did its due diligence” in interviewing the future gunman back in 2013 and 2014, and there’s nothing saying at this point that the FBI dropped the ball, he said.
Nor can the two agencies resolve the continuing debate over how to curb gun violence, he added, despite the fact that the shooter had a lengthy history of threatening violence but could legally buy the weapons—even though he had once been on the terrorist watch list. “ATF is a drastically underfunded undermanned agency with very limited authority to prevent sales of this nature,” Everitt said. “These actions have to be taken by Congress. It’s the legislative branch that is responsible for this bloodshed, which will continue unless Congress acts.”
A starkly different view came from Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America. “What could get lost in the weeds and overlooked is the fact that this shooting occurred in a gun-free zone,” like most such incidents since the 1950s, he told Government Executive. “The law doesn’t protect, it actually makes people more vulnerable because nobody was legally able to stop him.”
The fact that the shooter purchased the guns legally is common in such cases, Pratt added. The work of the agencies is not material to where such murders occur, he said. “The AFT and FBI are not supermen. They can only do so much when we gave [the shooting opportunity] to this dirtbag on a platter.”
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights campaign, which advocates on LGBT issues, said, “We’re satisfied with way the investigation is proceeding so far. When we look at bias-motivated crimes and investigations into terrorism, I think it is obvious that [hate] is a primary motivation, but the other issues take time and more careful investigation,” he said, adding that his group is in touch with the Justice Civil Rights Division. “We're working to understand what role anti-gay bigotry may have played. They’re looking at all angles, and we take them seriously as a priority to get it right.”