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Open topic: Is Strong Enough?


Photography by Brent Holmes

After October 1, we adopted a slogan. What we didn’t get was a conversation

As of this month, Route 91 is half a year behind us. We have memorialized the victims and mourned their absence. We have conjured up the slogan “Vegas Strong” to put focus on the city’s resilience in the wake of tragedy, to fortify our civic hardiness as residents of a tireless town, to honor our first responders and law enforcement, to seemingly never forget what happened here. We have ushered in a new year and carried on as best we can.

The problem is that carrying on necessarily means leaving something behind. The week of Route 91, Callum Patton from Newsweek wrote, “Nevada has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the country, a legislative condition that is sure to come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history on Sunday night in Las Vegas.” That scrutiny seems to have done little to inspire any action here — or anywhere. Since January, there have been more than 30 shooting incidents across the country, one of which occurred here at the Las Vegas Lounge, the city’s only transgender club.

Post-October, the city, county, and state have made no push for new legislation, exhibited no renewed sense of urgency, and definitely engaged in no real conversation. It may be that Nevada  practically invites residents and tourists to legally purchase and carry a firearm: No registration is required, just a permit, which is good for five years. You don’t have to notify a police officer that you have a weapon in the car if you’re stopped. Plus, Nevada’s reciprocity agreements, which honor the concealed-carry permits of other jurisdictions, cover 30 states.

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We moved past the tragedy born of these choices, instead opting to emblazon our cars and billboards and clothing with a reminder that we are part of this city and somehow stronger for it. What exactly does this do for us?

The combination of “city name + strong” is not original to Las Vegas or to October 2017. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, “Orlando Strong” circulated on social media. The same is true of Sutherland Springs, where a mass shooting took place one month after Route 91. And Umpqua Community College in 2015. Aurora and Sandy Hook in 2012. And now, Parkland. This is understandable because the phrase’s message is a simple one. It does not seek to specify anything other than a location and an attitude.

Because of this, Vegas Strong is open to everyone who lives here. It would also seem to belong to everyone who doesn’t live here, seeing as we sell shirts with the slogan at gift shops around the city. This mass appeal, generated by an ease of use, is by design. Buying a product meant to be seen, like, say, a sticker of the Strip skyline with “Vegas Strong” in bold capital letters, represents action or a statement to many people. And the more people, the better. As a consequence, Vegas Strong can be co-opted because what’s being said isn’t complicated. Consumption takes the place of conversation.

Meanwhile, in the months since Route 91, a national conversation has been taking place, with Las Vegas as a footnote. The city has become another stop on the ever-lengthening timeline of mass shootings that initially came into the country’s consciousness with Columbine in 1999. This legacy continues today with Parkland, but the reactions have been vastly different.

In October, after the shock dissipated, Las Vegas went into the scab phase of healing. The focus lay on two primary agents: the shooter and the victims. On a broader level, gun control came to the fore as a talking point, but not by much. By comparison, Parkland’s timeline has been far more condensed. A visible, vocal, and persistent campaign against the possession of automatic firearms, such as AR-15s, along with a call for an overall increase in restrictions to gun access, was launched within days of the tragedy. Why?

It may be that the two groups of victims are too dissimilar: one a concert made up primarily of tourists, the other a school of young people whose lives are tied to their place. The majority of Route 91’s victims were over 30, while Parkland’s were mostly under 20. There’s also the nature of “Las Vegas.” Ours is a liminal space, marked by transience.

There is a temptation to ask if we adopted the slogan “Vegas Strong” in lieu of having a real conversation about the issues that led to its creation. The problem of gun control and the mass violence that can result from a lack of it is sprawling and seemingly unsolvable. The least we could do is visibly mark the tragedy, with an item of clothing or a sticker, and soldier on.

Except I’m inclined to think there are a fair number of people who don’t see that there’s any issue to solve. The creed for those who believe strongly in their interpretation of the Second Amendment is that these incidents are isolated, sporadic, perpetrated by “crazy” and “stupid” amateurs. If a concealed-carry citizen with a real sense for gun safety and training had been present, things would be different.

Never mind that these outcomes, involving a shooter and an armed bystander, are rare and often result in disaster. See 2014’s Walmart shooting off Charleston and Stewart, where a married couple on a shooting spree shot and killed an armed bystander who tried to intervene. 

Our specific issue seems to be both an aversion to dealing with October’s complexity, mixed with a measure of hubris when thinking about these shootings as a whole. “Vegas Strong” is about as far removed as possible from even broaching the subject.

In March, in reaction to the shooting in Florida, and no doubt spurred by the persistence of those students who have been speaking out, Oregon passed a new gun-safety law preventing convicted stalkers and domestic abusers from purchasing/possessing firearms. It would seem the scope of Parkland’s reach is far wider than Vegas’. Again, we might ask why, but, frankly, the time for speculation has passed — more speculation would be anathema to productive action. And dialogue is action. We need to be serious about how we conduct ours.

Right now, Route 91 is half a year gone, and we have nothing to show for it.

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