Orlando vaults mass shootings, Islam into 2016 political campaign

It didn't take long for the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history to hit the 2016 political campaign trail.

'It's not too early to talk about politics because this just happened,' says regular at nightclub

Scott Gohman and his wife Donna, both Donald Trump supporters with concealed carry weapon permits, visit the site near where shootings took place early Sunday. 'This was an attack on the world,' Gohman said. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

It took only hours for the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history to hit the 2016 political campaign trail. 

How the battleground state responds to Sunday's massacre at Pulse Orlando will set the tone for this year's presidential election and could ultimately decide who takes the White House in November. 

"It's not too early to talk about politics because this just happened," said Hector Martinez, a regular at Pulse's Latin Nights.

On Sunday, helicopters whirred over candle-light vigils at South Orange Avenue downtown. A block away from a police cordon, 49 people at Pulse's regular Latin Night had been slain by 29-year-old gunman Omar Mateen. Another 53 people were wounded, some critically.

Hector Martinez, 31, a regular at Pulse Orlando's Latin Nights, lights a candle for friends shot and wounded in Sunday's shooting spree. 'I know the club manager, the promoter, the performers. I was here last Saturday,' he said. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Mateen, a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent, pledged allegiance to ISIS in a call to 911, before he was killed in a gun battle. No evidence has emerged directly linking him to the extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But the horrors at Pulse, an LGBT fixture in Orlando, have exposed the deep rifts among Americans distrustful of Islam and those weighing the freedom to bear assault-style firearms.

Martinez, a regular at Pulse's Latin Nights, happened to skip this weekend. But he returned to the area last night, lighting a candle for two friends wounded in the gunfire. One was shot in the right arm, the other in his leg.

"This is a time for a healing," Martinez said, and for asking questions. But he believes it's also the right time to think about how political change might prevent this from happening again.

"You look at Virginia Tech. You look at Sandy Hook," Martinez said, reciting the shorthand names for previous U.S. mass shootings carried out separately by Seung-Hui Cho in 2007 and Adam Lanza in 2012.

"The gunmen in those tragedies had control of massacre weapons."

Descriptions of the weapons Mateen used to carry out mass murder included a handgun as well as one semi-automatic weapon similar to the AR-15 rifle.

Lanza used an AR-15 to carry out the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings four years ago of 20 young children and six adults.

Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday. (Myspace/Associated Press)

In her statement responding to Sunday's killings, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said the massacre "reminds us once more that weapons of war have no place on our streets."

U.S. President Barack Obama called Sunday's tragedy an "act of terror." He made yet another solemn plea for soul-searching on limits to access to firearms. The massacre was a "further reminder," the president said, "of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theatre. Or in a nightclub."

Presumptive Republican Donald Trump hit back around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, calling on Obama to resign in a press statement. The president acted "disgracefully," Trump's release said, by not characterizing Sunday's ISIS-inspired attacks as "radical Islam."

And unless Clinton uses those words to describe the attack, he said, "she should get out of this race for the presidency."

He once again implied there's little room for political correctness in discussions about national security, and he criticized Clinton's plans to "dramatically increase admissions" to the U.S. of people from the Middle East.

Mourners in San Diego, Calif., gather under an LGBT pride flag flying at half-mast for a candlelight vigil for mass shooting victims in Orlando. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

"We will have no way to screen them, pay for them, or prevent the second generation from radicalizing," Trump's statement said.

They were invigorating words for Scott Gohman, a barber from Daytona who watched the vigils from South Orange Avenue late Sunday.

"I've been waiting all day to get home to see what Trump says, because this is part of the reason that he needs to be president," he said.

"Obama wants all these people to come here, that's fine, that's how America was made. But you've got to vet these people."

Lacking specifics

Gohman, 47, added later that he was aware that Mateen was born in the United States and was a citizen.

Trump's linking of violent attacks with the religion of Islam is troublesome, in part because it lacks specifics, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.

"There should be no debate about who these people are, and it's violent Salafist Jihadists," Levin said. "We should be using specific, accurate language.

"I think, frankly, the national security community is quite worried about experience and temperament with regard to our continuing fight and the need to have Muslim allies on our team."

The major Muslims American organizations Monday have roundly and unequivocally condemned the attacks.

Particularly worrisome to Levin, though, is the "terror watch-list loophole" that allows potentially radicalized individuals who have already been flagged by law enforcement to still obtain guns.

Senate Republicans late last year blocked a bill aiming to stop the legal purchase of guns by terror watch-list suspects. Online users began publishing the names of the senators who voted against the bill.

Still too early

"We have to have some introspection with regard to both radicalism and access to firearms by individuals who shouldn't have had them in the first place," Levin says. "I think all can agree on that."

Mateen was twice investigated by the FBI for possible terrorist ties and statements allegedly supporting ISIS. Still, he was able to purchase firearms.

For his part, Orlando resident Chris Enzo, 25, felt  it was still too early to politicize the shooting.

Chris Enzo, 25, speaks with reporters near the scene of a mass shooting Orlando's Pulse nightclub. Enzo's friend, Rodney Sumter, a bartender at the club, was wounded but survived the rampage early Sunday morning. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

His friend, Rodney Sumter was bartending at Pulse when he was shot three times. Sumter survived, running for his life before the crisis ended with dozens  dead inside the club.

"We're still just piecing it all together," he said. "We could suspect this is a hate crime against homosexuals, but not everybody at Pulse is homosexual.

"Rodney was bartending there. He's not gay. He's another person who loves people. A lot of these people are just people who love people."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong