Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 | 2 a.m.
When a man at a Florida airport retrieves his luggage, takes out a gun and kills five people, the only part people are surprised about is that it happened at an airport.
In the grand sweep of U.S. gunfire in the 21st century, all we can say about Friday’s Fort Lauderdale tragedy was that it was the worst mass shooting so far in 2017. But there already have been six incidents with more than three dead or wounded victims. On Jan. 4, three family members in Fontana, Calif., were killed in their home and another was critically wounded. A 73-year-old relative was charged. Never even entered the national conversation.
But the Fort Lauderdale case was personal — almost everybody travels through airports. “You just can’t imagine how this could ever happen in a state like ours,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference. A few minutes later he did remember to refer to the fact that last year 49 people were shot to death in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Officials were still unsorting the history of the suspect, identified as Esteban Santiago, and trying to determine whether he was inspired, even in a totally deranged way, by ISIS. Whenever these tragedies happen, the nation holds its breath until there’s an assurance that it did not involve terrorism. If we get the word, there’s a sigh of relief and we go back to living in a country where a random guy will suddenly open fire in a mall or theater or school just because he’s nuts and has a gun.
In theory, when a horrific tragedy occurs, the nation is supposed to join hands and come together. It’s hard to do that in mass shooting cases because America is a land divided between gun places and non-gun places. The immediate reaction of many folks from gun places to the Fort Lauderdale shooting was that — aha! — Florida is one of the few states where it’s illegal to carry a gun anywhere in an airline terminal.
Meanwhile, many people in non-gun places wondered why airline passengers were allowed to have firearms in their luggage.
It’s hard to have a rational gun conversation in a country with such a cultural chasm. It’s the job of our national officials to bridge the gap. And it ought to be possible, since there are some important issues on which almost everybody agrees. One is that gun purchases should be run through background checks to make sure the buyer doesn’t have a record of lawbreaking or serious mental problems.
We will be arguing for a while about whether background checks could have stopped the Florida airport shooting. But, either way, sensible regulation of gun sales still will be sensible regulation of gun sales.
This is the moment where I tell you that our president-elect does not believe in sensible regulation of gun sales.
Donald Trump’s position on gun laws has gone through a rather familiar evolution. Back in the day he was a sort of indifferent moderate. Then came the campaign and a love affair with the National Rifle Association, which dumped about $30 million into the effort to get Trump elected president.
Soon, he was fantasizing about packing heat during the Paris terrorist shootings. (“I can tell you that if I had been in the Bataclan or in the cafes, I would have opened fire. I may have been killed, but I would have drawn.”)
He appeared, during one rally, to suggest that if Hillary Clinton was elected president, gun lovers might want to take her out. (“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”)
And he has consistently endorsed the theory that if more people carried around guns, the nation would be a much safer place. Donald Trump Jr., a chairman of his dad’s new Second Amendment Coalition, declared, “My father defends the Second Amendment so that you and I and your spouse and your children can take care of themselves when someone much stronger, much meaner and much more vicious than them tries to break into their home.”
In the real world, the chances that having a weapon in the house will translate into protecting the family from a vicious housebreaker are infinitesimal and far, far smaller than the chances that someone in the family will wind up shot by the very same weapon.
But about the background checks: The NRA lobbyists hate them. And Trump has promised that as soon as he’s sworn in, he’ll “unsign” Barack Obama’s executive order closing a big loophole involving online sales and gun shows.
Trump could make a really good start this month by just not doing anything divisive. Give the country a hint that the guy who terrified so many Americans during the campaign will be more measured in office. Leave the background checks alone. We’ve been through a lot.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.