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What the Orlando shooting shows about the importance of gun laws

In Florida, it's very easy to buy deadly weapons.

Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,file)

After the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, it would be easy to write the whole question of gun laws off altogether.

After all, the 29-year-old assailant in the horrific massacre at a gay club in Orlando was a native-born U.S. citizen, a licensed security guard who therefore had a good reason to own guns (and for which he had proper permits) and who passed muster after two FBI inquiries, even though he professed his allegiance to the Islamic State to a 911 operator during the standoff early Sunday morning.

As we now know, he purchased two guns legally — an AR-15-style style semiautomatic rifle and a semi-automatic handgun — just days before the shooting. How, then, could the law have made a difference?

What to know about assault-style rifles. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The answer lies in where he lived: Florida, among the easiest states in the nation to buy guns. A handful other states restrict which weapons can be purchased, or require tougher background checks before sales are allowed. Had the shooter attempted the attack in a state with tougher gun laws, it would have been much harder — and it might even have been prevented.

In most states, including Florida, assault weapons which can receive large-capacity bullet magazines are legal and available. Large-capacity magazines are also perfectly legal. A legal handgun purchase attempt receives a green light as long as the prospective purchaser is not a felon or mentally incompetent and has no domestic order of protection or similar restriction against them.

In a few states, however, the standards for both types of weapons are significantly higher. In New York, for example, a weapon like the assault rifle is legal, but only if it cannot receive a detachable magazine — eliminating the ability of the user to rapidly change out spent magazines — and cannot fire more than ten rounds without reloading. The matters of large capacity firing and rapid reloading are critical: a 30-year study of mass shootings found that half of them involved high-capacity magazines (the Orlando shooter reportedly had 30-round magazines). Only eight states restrict large-capacity magazines, and seven impose restrictions on assault weapons.

New York is also much more thorough in its background check process for legal handgun possession than is Florida and most states. As a “may issue” state for handgun licenses, local authorities in New York conduct an extensive background check, going far beyond whether the purchaser has a felony past or the like. Among other things, permit applicants are finger-printed and must submit the names of four character references who must complete a detailed questionnaire; police are free to interview friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives, and a judge makes an ultimate determination as to whether the application should be approved.

Why mass shootings don’t lead to new gun laws

Had this been the standard in Florida, authorities would have learned that Omar Mateen had been verbally and physically abusive to his former wife, and that he was known to others as having emotional problems and a volatile temper. None of this behavior need have risen to the level of criminality for him to have been disqualified from receiving a permit in New York, because local authorities retain discretion on the granting of pistol permits. Does that mean New York’s rules encroach on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms? No: The state’s laws have withstood constitutional challenge in federal court, as have similar state laws in four other federal courts of appeal decisions.

The result of these two different systems of law is predictable. Compared to New York, Florida dispenses pistol permits like candy, as 1.4 million Sunshine State residents have them. That itself, of course, is an inducement for more people to get the permits.

Finally, this terrible shooting raises questions beyond gun violence and anger, including possible political motivations related to the Islamic State and Mateen’s apparent rage against gays. But how could anyone argue that easy access to guns is irrelevant because of other, murky motivations? Whether the issue is mental health or radical political ideology, we all have an abiding interest in keeping guns from the hands of such people. Too bad Florida law doesn’t bother trying.

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