Congress Again Faces Questions About Terrorism, Gun Access (Wall Street Journal)

WASHINGTON—The shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando early on Sunday has reignited congressional debate over terrorism and the country’s gun laws, as lawmakers grappled with responding to one of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history.

Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, were briefed on the attack Sunday. 


“We pray for those brutally attacked in Orlando,” Mr. Ryan said on Twitter. “While we must learn more about the attacker, the victims [and] families will not be forgotten.” Mr. Ryan called for flags flying over the Capitol to be lowered to half-staff.

Law-enforcement officials were still working to understand the motive behind the shooting that left 51 dead and 53 injured at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando. Police shot and killed the alleged gunman, identified by counterterrorism officials as Omar S. Mateen,who worked as a security guard, had a gun license and was a U.S. citizen. Officials said there are some initial indications the shooter was attracted to radical Islamic ideology.


Congressional leaders said they were waiting to hear more details about what prompted the shooting. The details likely will shape the debate in Congress.


Lawmakers are scheduled to spend relatively little time in Washington during the final months leading up to November’s elections, but the deadly shooting could elevate policy debates over gun access and national security issues that have largely receded in this year’s tumultuous presidential campaign.


Lawmakers from both parties expressed worry that Sunday’s violence may have stemmed from ties to the Islamic State militant group. “This appears to be the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, and it is a sobering reminder that radical Islamists are targeting our country and our way of life,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) said. “Tragedies like we saw in Orlando only strengthen our resolve to fight back against terror and prevail over extremism wherever it emerges.”


Congress has struggled with how to respond to Islamic terrorists. Many lawmakers, including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a potential Democratic vice-presidential pick, have called for drafting a resolution authorizing new powers for military operations against Islamic State militants, but partisan differences have long stalled the effort.


Democrats have generally wanted more limitations on the use of ground troops, while Republicans have argued the president needs more flexibility in taking on Islamic State fighters.


Democrats also expressed concern Sunday’s shooting may have targeted the gay community, while Republicans largely didn’t mention the orientation of the nightclub. “While many questions have yet to be answered, the pain of this attack in a mainstay of the Orlando LGBT community is surely magnified as our nation celebrates LGBT Pride month,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said.


California’s Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the timing and target of the attacks raised many questions about the motives behind it.


“The fact that this shooting took place during Ramadan and that ISIS leadership in Raqqa has been urging attacks during this time, that the target was an LGBT night club during Pride, and—if accurate—that according to local law enforcement the shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS, indicates an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism,” said Mr. Schiff, who noted he would march in the West Hollywood Pride Parade later on Sunday. “Whether this attack was also ISIS-directed, remains to be determined.”


Following a string of deadly shootings in recent years, the Orlando massacre could reopen the divisive debate over whether Congress should be doing more to tighten gun access. The December 2012 mass shooting of school children in Newtown, Conn., prompted lawmakers to push to expand background checks for gun purchases, but that effortcollapsed in the Senate in April 2013.


Congress had been considered unlikely to re-examine such a contentious issue during an election year, but the Orlando shooting could give the issue a more-prominent role in the presidential campaign as well as in the battleground states that will determine which party controls the Senate next year.


In particular, the gun-control debate could become louder in the fierce Senate race under way in Florida, where Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) is stepping down after his unsuccessful presidential bid. Competitive primaries within both parties on Aug. 30 will decide who squares off in November to succeed Mr. Rubio.


In Orlando, the shooter carried an assault rifle as well as a handgun, Orlando Police ChiefJohn Mina said earlier Sunday. The Florida state database shows Mr. Mateen had two firearms licenses, a security-officer license and a statewide firearms license. Both are listed as scheduled to expire in September 2017.


Many Democrats have called to push again for widening background checks in the wake of other shootings in recent, but leaders have said such efforts are likely to be futile absent a fundamental political shift on Capitol Hill, where both chambers are controlled by Republicans. Many Democrats have also pushed to ban the manufacture and sale of certain semiautomatic rifles, often called assault weapons, and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.


“This phenomenon of near-constant mass shootings happens only in America—nowhere else,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who has been among the loudest lawmakers to call for tighter gun regulations since the Newtown shootings. “Congress has become complicit in these murders by its total, unconscionable deafening silence. This doesn’t have to happen, but this epidemic will continue without end if Congress continues to sit on its hands and do nothing—again.”


Republicans have generally said Congress should react to mass shootings by overhauling the country’s mental-health system. And critics of tougher gun laws say more restrictions wouldn’t stop mass shootings and would unfairly restrict constitutional rights.