UN rights chief calls for more US gun control in wake of Orlando massacre

© Rebecca Cook
The mass murder of 49 people in Orlando again shows that the United States must consider heightened gun-control measures to protect its most vulnerable citizens, the United Nations human rights commissioner has said.

Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, implored American leaders to finally address easy access to firearms and the resulting high volume of gun violence that is now pervasive in the US.

As it stands, the US has inadequately protected its citizens, especially "vulnerable communities and minorities who are already facing widespread prejudice," from “horrifyingly commonplace but preventable violent attacks that are the direct result of insufficient gun control," Zeid said in a Tuesday statement.

“It is hard to find a rational justification that explains the ease with which people can buy firearms, including assault rifles, in spite of prior criminal backgrounds, drug use, histories of domestic violence and mental illness, or direct contact with extremists – both domestic and foreign,” he said.

Zeid added that the mass shooting at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12 by private security officer Omar Mateen must receive an answer in the US that includes assurances of safety and respect for all citizens.

It was “particularly reprehensible – indeed dangerous – that this terrible event is already being utilized to promote homophobic and Islamophobic sentiments," Zeid said.

Zeid pointed to a new UN human rights report on civilian firearm possession and use that shows the "devastating impact" of gun violence on many basic aspects of life. Women and children, the report states, are disproportionately affected by loose gun laws.

Human rights, the UN official said, should be central to the consideration of laws that guide the "availability, transfer and use of firearms." In order to respect human rights, the UN suggested that adequate gun control must include background checks, gun-license reviews, training, gun removal policies regarding instances of domestic violence, and the discouragement of illegal sales of guns.

“Examples from many countries clearly show that a legal framework to control the acquisition and use of firearms has led to a dramatic reduction in violent crime,” Zeid said. “In the United States, however, there are hundreds of millions of guns in circulation, and every year thousands of people are killed or injured by them.”

Zeid, a Jordanian prince, took up the post of the UN human rights chief in 2014. He previously served as Jordan's envoy to the UN and the country's ambassador to the US.

Gun control has been at the center of public discussions in the wake of the Orlando shooting, considered the most deadly single gun attack in modern American history. In his 20th address to the nation following a shooting incident, President Barack Obama said Sunday that both terrorism — Mateen, a US citizen, pledged allegiance to jihadist group Islamic State around the time of the attack, according to the FBI — and gun control should be part of the debate following the shooting.

“It's not an either-or. It's a both-and," Obama said. "We have to go after these terrorist organizations and hit them hard. We have to counter extremism, but we also have to make sure that it's not easy for somebody who decides they want to harm people in this country to be able to obtain weapons to get at them."

Many Democratic US senators also called for gun control measures. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) denounced his fellow members of Congress for their "total unconscionable deafening silence" on gun control.

"I know the pain and sadness that has brought too many communities – Newtown, Oregon, Aurora, San Bernardino, and now Orlando – to their knees, and I can only hope that America's leaders will do something to prevent another community from being added to the list," Murphy said in a statement. "Congress has become complicit in these murders by its total, unconscionable deafening silence."

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) offered legislation that aims to prevent known terror suspects, such as those on a US "no-fly" list, from purchasing firearms or explosives. Mateen had been the subject of multiple FBI inquiries, but he was not on a terror watch list at the time of the shooting.

On Monday, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) introduced legislation that would bar anyone convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from purchasing or owning firearms. Those convicted of a felony hate crime are already banned from buying or possessing guns.

Representative Ted Deutch (D-Florida), called for House Speaker Paul Ryan to "close the loophole that lets people on the terror watch list buy assault rifles."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also called for more gun control. She said the ban on assault weapons should be reinstated.

"Yes, there is a right for law-abiding, responsible Americans to own guns. And yes, there are reasonable common-sense measures to try to keep people safe from guns. We've got to figure out the best way to move forward on that," she said in a speech on Monday.

Despite renewed calls in Washington for federal gun control measures, action is unlikely to occur. Republicans, who control the US House and Senate, have preferred to focus on anti-terrorism advocacy in the wake of the Orlando attack.