Atlanta spa shootings and the Capitol riot: Gun control is the best tool to fight terrorism

One man in Atlanta killed more people in a night than died in the Capitol insurrection. The only difference is guns

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 17, 2021 12:51PM (EDT)

Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021 | Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested in connection with eight fatal shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Crisp County Sheriff's Office)
Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021 | Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested in connection with eight fatal shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Crisp County Sheriff's Office)

There's still much that's unknown about the shootings in Atlanta on Tuesday night. The suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, appears to have been targeting massage parlors. Eight people have been killed, including six Asian-American women. Early reports from the sheriff's office indicate that the shooter targeted the victims because he blamed them for his supposed "sex addiction." While the sheriff pointed to such comments to deny any alleged racist motivation, it's rare that such misogynistic motives don't come with a heavy dose of racism as well.

The attack happened at a time of heightened national concerns over domestic right-wing terrorism, and for good reason. In Donald Trump's America, hate groups exploded in number, and hate crimes hit record levels. In the past year, hate crimes against Asian-Americans, in particular, have spiked, fueled by Trump and his allies trying to pin the blame of the coronavirus on East Asians. And, of course, there was the Capitol insurrection Trump incited on January 6, which most Republicans refused to hold him accountable for. All of this is after Republicans blocked anti-lynching legislation last summer. 

So there's a great deal of talk now about what can be done to stem the rising tide of pro-terrorism sentiment in the country, from individuals trying to "deprogram" QAnon family members to the Department of Justice, under newly confirmed Attorney General Merrick Garland, prioritizing anti-terrorism initiatives. But this Atlanta shooting, which so far has all the hallmarks of a self-radicalized "lone wolf" attack, is a reminder that the single best way to combat domestic terrorism is with a policy that's both mundane and yet politically loaded: gun control. 

"Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It's a pretty good life," is what the Atlanta shooting suspect wrote as his Instagram tag. The second in his life list is what he is alleged to have used to snuff out the lives of eight people in three separate locations in a very short period of time. 

Contrast his shooting spree with the death toll from the Capitol riots in January. That crowd was at least a couple thousand people — and over 300 have been arrested — but only one person was directly killed by that crowd, an officer named Brian Sicknick. (There were four rioters who died and two more officers who committed suicide after the fact.) This wasn't because, as some of the dumber members of Congress have suggested, that the crowd was peaceful. The crowd did injure 140 police officers and were howling about how they wanted to kidnap members of Congress and "hang Mike Pence!" No, the low death toll was almost certainly because D.C.'s extremely strict gun laws hobbled the ability of the right-wing mob to bring their guns to town. 

To be clear, some rioters did have guns, but surprisingly few, considering how much the insurrectionist crowd is enamored with firearms. Instead, the crowd largely attacked law enforcement with weapons like chemical sprays, crowbars, and improvised weapons like fire extinguishers and flagpoles. But the reason that most of the rioters didn't bring guns to D.C. is because they knew doing so risked being arrested on weapons charges — which is exactly what happened in some cases — before they even had a chance to storm the Capitol.

"Dc is no guns. So mace and gas masks, some batons. If you have armor that's good," Kelly Meggs, a member of the Oathkeepers who was arrested for her part in the insurrection, advised her fellow would-be rioters on Facebook in the days ahead of the attackAnother Oathkeepers leader, Jessica Watkins, was allegedly orchestrating a plan to build up an armed presence outside of D.C., to rush into the district if Trump called for it. Without Trump making a direct order for an armed insurrection, however, she explicitly worried about being caught in a "trap" with their guns.  

Before the rally that turned into the Capitol riot, D.C. police were blanketing the area with reminders that guns were prohibited and that being arrested for having them was possible. They backed these threats up, too, arresting multiple people there for the rally on weapons charges in the days before the rally. So it's really no wonder so many of the insurrectionists had tasers and handcuffs and bear spray — but not that many had guns. 

"If the federal and local gun laws had not been in place, law enforcement almost certainly would have confronted protestors threatening to overrun the Capitol who were not just angry but armedas in Michigan," Jake Charles of the Duke Center for Firearms Law wrote in the days after the insurrection. He noted that police reaction would have likely been far "much more explosive had the D.C. rioters been carrying the same semi-automatic rifles." Indeed, the bloodshed on both sides would have likely been exponentially worse. 

Last week, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed two gun control bills to strengthen background checks, closing loopholes that allow people who shouldn't pass checks to buy guns by exploiting the backlog of background checks or by going to background check-free dealers online or at gun shows. Such legislation enjoys upwards of 70% support from voters across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, there's no chance of any of these bills getting through the Senate without filibuster reform. The good news, however, is that things are looking a little brighter in that department if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's latest meltdown is any indication. 

As more information comes out about the shooting, there's likely going to be a lot of very important discussion about the motivations behind hate crimes and domestic terrorism. Bigotry against women and Asian-Americans almost certainly fueled this murderous rampage. The way Christian fundamentalism distorts sexuality is also a likely factor. These are all serious issues in our country that need full redress, which will be long and difficult and will likely take generations, if we're lucky. In the meantime, however, we know one swift way to reduce the deadliness of terrorist attacks: Make it way harder for people to get guns. Just two weeks ago, Sweden had a similar situation where a young man attacked multiple people in a public place. But he was armed with a knife, not a gun, so the seven people affected were injured but not dead.

Guns make it way too easy for someone who has wound himself into a hateful place to unleash death on innocent people. Bigotry is hard to eradicate, but the least we can do is make it harder for bigotry to kill. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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