Let's tackle mass shootings like we do terrorism

Let's tackle mass shootings like we do terrorism
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Mass shootings are a uniquely American tragedy. I have worked in the extremism and counterterrorism space for a long time, as a federal contractor for the Department of Homeland Security and as a national security expert for several think tanks around the world. I have sat in prison cells and interviewed convicted terrorists. I have sought to understand the nuances of violent hate whether it manifests in an ISIS-inspired bombing in Sri Lanka or a white supremacy-driven shooting in El Paso.

What I have seen is a common narrative: hatred, the notion of superiority and cleansing, and mobilization to violence in the name of an ideology. But in the United States, we’ve chosen to fight back a lot harder against the kinds of violent extremism perpetrated by foreigners or those with a certain color of skin. We created a vast toolkit to counter al Qaeda and ISIS, but we do nothing to prevent these homegrown extremists who happen to be white from accessing weapons of mass destruction in our country.

Though the radicalization process might be the same across the extremism spectrum, the numbers do not lie. The Center on Extremism released statistics showing that 73 percent of extremist-related murders in the U.S. over the last 10 years (through 2018) were committed by right-wing domestic extremists.


You cannot argue with the data here, and we in the counterterrorism space are consistently trying to drive this point home: It isn’t just ISIS or al Qaeda that commit acts of terror. These domestic terrorism-labeled cases are almost always linked or motivated by some version of white supremacist ideology. We’ve seen it over and over, like in El PasoCharlottesvillePittsburgh and Poway, just to name a few.

Why is this unique to America? 

Certainly there are extremists around the world. We’ve seen a major rise in white nationalism across Europe as well, so we know that this type of hatred transcends borders. Why then do we see mass shooting after mass shooting in our nation alone? The only major difference is the everyday access to the type of weapon, an AR-15, that lets a person fire 41 times in under 30 seconds, as in Dayton.

Many of our leaders argue that this violence stems from society’s rising rates of mental illness. Let’s be clear: If someone is fueled by such hatred for others to the point that they research the town of El Paso, Texas, map out a majority Hispanic population, and go to a Walmart to kill 21 people, then what you suffer from is white supremacy.

This does not detract from the fact that there indeed may be contributing mental health issues. But how do you reconcile the scale of carnage in America when mental health issues occur with similar frequency around the world? What gives?


Again, it’s the ready access to guns that can kill 9 people and injure 27 more even when it takes police less than a minute to stop the attack. Such access in this country is unparalleled, but it is not a “freedom” we should be too proud of.

I remember September 11, 2001. That attack changed the course of history, and it changed the way counterterrorism efforts were conducted around the world.

In the wake of the attack, communities were surveilled, houses of worship were monitored and law enforcement agencies had to adapt and shift as the threat evolved. Now is the time to mobilize against a similar threat. We need to put the same time and energy into fighting and curbing white supremacy as we did to stopping Al Qaeda after 9-11.

As a national security expert, my hope and prayer is that our leaders will put political considerations aside and do what is right — bring the two gun safety bills that the House passed earlier this year back to the Senate floor.

My hope is that the rhetoric from the top will be filled with tolerance, hope and inclusivity — because words matter. No one in this country should live in fear because of the color of their skin, the language they speak or the country they immigrated from. 

What will actually move the ball down the field?

I believe it’s a collective narrative from America’s elected leaders that stresses the beauty and strength of our diversity, and how we all belong and are worthy of protection. In this pivotal moment, we cannot lose sight of these values or fail to act to uphold them.

Courtney La Bau is a counterterrorism expert and Truman National Security Project Political Partner.