A husband and wife team killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, this week. The woman, shortly before embarking on the killing spree, apparently pledged her loyalty to an ISIS leader over the internet.
Were the killings criminal acts or acts of terrorism?
That question is somewhat misleading. Terrorism is a crime. Thus, at a minimum, the killings were crimes. However, were the killings terrorist acts?
Terrorism is purposeful activity. Terrorists have political agendas that they hope to achieve by inflicting terror, perhaps harm, on innocent third parties. Yet the killers in San Bernardino made no demands. No organization made any political demands of the US or another government either before or after the killings. Nor could anyone realistically expect that killing fourteen, or even fourteen hundred, innocent people in California would inflict existential harm on the US. Furthermore, although ISIS' rhetoric may have influenced this husband and wife team of killers, there is no public evidence at this time that ISIS contributed to the planning or execution of the killings.
In sum, the San Bernardino killings do not satisfy the definition of terrorist activity widely accepted by academics, intelligence agencies (e.g., the FBI and CIA), and the military.
Classifying the killings as criminal activity (mass murder) instead of terrorism is an important distinction. Terrorism confers an unwarranted elevation of status on the perpetrators. The killers were criminals, nothing more. Describing them as terrorists implicitly encourages other miscreants to emulate their evil acts. (To learn more about developing an effective an ethical counterterrorism, read Just Counterterrorism available through Amazon).
The primary threat from human killers that the US and its citizens face today is from homegrown murderers. In 2015 alone, the US has had 355 incidents in which a killer murdered five or more persons. Several observations will help keep that problem in perspective.
First, the odds of dying in a vehicle accident are more than ten times the odds of being killed in by a mass murderer. Hopefully, you wear a seatbelt, don't drive while under the influence of alcohol or other substances, and generally observe traffic regulations and laws. But I'm willing to bet that you still routinely travel by automobile without worrying about your safety. Mass murders are a serious problem that we should try to stop, but we need to keep the problem in perspective and not devote excessive resources to the problem.
Second, Australia has not had a mass murder in almost twenty years. In response to their last murder, Australia's Conservative led government enacted mandatory waiting periods before purchasing firearms, mandatory screening to be completed before a person can purchase a firearm, and bans on most private ownership of automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, and pump shotguns. These efforts worked. Timely intervention by police and citizens now prevents a criminal intent on mass murder from succeeding. The US should enact and vigorously enforce similar legislation.
Third, public opinion leaders in the US should strive to deglamorize weapons and weapon ownership. The idea is a shibboleth that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution's guarantee of the right to bear arms prevents tyranny. If personally owned weapons were sufficient to overthrow tyranny, then groups opposed to tyrannical regimes in Syria and elsewhere would not invariably clamor for foreign air support and military assistance. Minutemen responding with muskets may have helped to win the American Revolution, but individual weapons – even the most advanced automatic weapons – are no match for a well-trained, well-equipped dedicated armed force that has heavy armor, air power, etc.
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack, the President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., called for Liberty students to carry concealed weapons to prevent a similar incident from happening on the Liberty campus. I find it embarrassing that he, like I, considers himself a Christian. Guns are not the answer. Students carrying weapons will only incite further incidents. Instead, Christian leaders should start a campaign to repeal the Second Amendment's guarantee of a right to bear arms.
In Poland and England, about one in a million people die each year from a homicide committed with a gun. That's about the same odds as dying from an agricultural accident in the US. In the US, the rate of deaths from a gun is about 31 in a million per year. It's time to end the slaughter.