Terror in Boston: It's About Guns, Not Bombs

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tags: terrorism, guns, gun control, Robert Brent Toplin, Boston Marathon bombing


Robert Brent Toplin is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and has published several books about history, politics, and film, including "Radical Conservatism: The Right’s Political Religion."

Credit: Flickr.

On Wednesday, April 17, U.S. senators failed to round up enough votes to pass broadly popular recommendations for gun regulation, including a proposal to require background checks on some but not all gun purchases. During the next two nights, law enforcement authorities engaged in gun battles with two young men suspected of planting bombs at the Boston Marathon.

These events are related.

The news media have concentrated on the bombs, yet it was the suspects’ possession of firearms that delayed their capture and led authorities to declare a lockdown of New England’s largest city. If the two brothers accused of these crimes didn’t have guns, they could have been more easily apprehended.

To explore alternatives, we need to consider “what if?” questions -- to ponder the “might have beens.” In this case, other scenarios were possible.  Tragedy might have been averted if more stringent gun laws had been in effect.

Police had considerable difficulty apprehending the suspects because they were armed to the teeth (along with handguns, they possessed an M-4 carbine, the type used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan). Lawmen searched neighborhoods in Watertown, Massachusetts cautiously, because they were aware of recent activity at gunpoint. They learned that a policeman had been killed on the campus of MIT and that one of the assailants had escaped after participating in a bloody firefight that injured several policemen. The lawmen’s caution seemed wise, for the second young suspect later exchanged gunfire with the police while on the lam.

The situation was extraordinary. On Friday, a single nineteen-year-old kid armed to the teeth terrorized the citizens of metropolitan Boston. Because of public fears about his lethal firepower and determination to kill, local leaders shut down the activities of local businesses, educational institutions, and the area’s mass transit system.

If just one of the modest gun reforms sought by U.S. senators recently had been applied a few years ago, perhaps the crisis in Boston would not have occurred, including the explosions at the marathon. The older brother of the accused pair, Tamerlan Tsarneav, might have been apprehended by law enforcement agents if effective background checks for gun purchases had been in place.

Two years before the recent shootouts, the FBI received a request from the Russian government for information about the older brother. Russian authorities feared Tamerlan Tsarnaev had connections with a radical Islamic group. They were concerned about Tamerlan’s upcoming visit to Russia, which could involve meetings with Chechen rebels. The FBI interviewed Tamerlan but did not conclude that he was a terrorist.

Later, however, U.S. officials denied Tamerlan’s application for American citizenship, evidently because of the Russians’ warning to the FBI.

If vigorous background checks for gun purchases had been in place in the United States, could a young man from Chechnya described to the FBI as a potential terrorist easily buy firearms? With the benefit of such checks, Tamerlan’s efforts to obtain guns might (this is a counterfactual, remember) have triggered an investigation and the discovery of bomb-making materials at his residence. Even if his younger brother, Dzhokhar, attempted to purchase guns for him, the unusual surname could alarm U.S. authorities.

The writings and comments of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev suggest that their violent expressions may have been related to psychological insecurities. Tamerlan, the older brother, admitted, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.” Did such loneliness serve as justification for violent action? Dzhokhar, the younger brother, sent a variety of weird tweets over recent months. Sometimes he sounded like a normal young man. Dzhokhar tapped messages about rap music, and his last tweet before capture announced he was a “stress free kind of guy.” In other tweets he called 9/11 as an “inside job,” reported that he dreamed of killing Abe Lincoln, and announced, “I won’t run I’ll just gun you all out #thugliving.”

Some politicians want the U.S. government to describe these two suspects as sophisticated and disciplined soldiers who are engaged in international terrorism. They characterize the brothers as “enemy combatants” and hint of connections with al Qaeda. Yet evidence coming to light about the brothers’ thinking seems to reveal dark imaginings of deeply troubled minds as much or more than commitments to a firm ideology.

In many other cases of mass shootings in modern U.S. history two conditions, above all, were common: the killers were psychologically and socially maladjusted, and possession of guns enabled them to vent their tensions in lethal ways. Among the most notable recent examples were shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 (13 deaths), at Virginia Tech in 2007 (32 deaths and many wounded), at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 (12 dead soldiers, one dead civilian, and about 20 wounded), at Casas Adobes, Arizona in 2011 (6 killed and 18 wounded, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), at a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 (12 killed, 58 injured), and at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012  (20 children dead and 6 adults).

We may never achieve a clear understanding of the thinking and motivation of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  But we can recognize that the tragedy in Boston might have been averted. If strong requirements for background checks on gun purchases had been in place, the FBI and other law enforcement officials would likely become alarmed. Violence that paralyzed a great American city might not have occurred.

We cannot be certain that law enforcement authorities would have taken preemptive action, but evidence about the role of guns in this case and their lax regulation in the United States should give us pause.

Related Links

On Topic: Boston Marathon Bombing

On Topic: Chechnya

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