All We Have
Serious gun law reform is unlikely in the wake of the Route 91 shooting. What else can we do? There are only imperfect choices
The breaking wave of emotion is by now too sadly familiar across America in the wake of a mass murder: fear, grief, anger, the search for meaning, the vows of reform. But here we are again.
It’s been a month since Stephen Paddock methodically took aim from the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay, a tactically perfect perch for a predator bent on taking lives. Since then, we’ve felt the full range of emotions, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
The ubiquitous if derivative “Vegas Strong” has become our shorthand, a way of showing defiance, resilience, connectedness in the wake of the massacre, the modern American version of “Keep Calm and Carry On” that Londoners adopted before German bombs began falling on the city a lifetime ago. For Las Vegas, it’s a desperate shibboleth meant to ward off the fear and the horror, with no more real power to stop the bullets or the memories than the original had to ward off German planes.
But it’s also all we have. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate: We are, all of us, a madman’s whim away from death at any given moment, and there’s not a thing we can do about it.
No matter how many prayers we pray, thoughts we hold, blood drives we line up for, doves we release, dollars we donate, or gardens we plant, the stark reality is, nothing has changed since that terrible day a month ago — and nothing is likely to change that will make future shootings impossible. That reality, harsh as vinegar in a wine glass, doesn’t lend itself to a hashtag, a T-shirt or an inspiring slogan. But it’s nonetheless true.
As always in the wake of gun violence, there are calls for greater controls, especially on weapons designed for the battlefield. And that makes sense: High-powered rifles with magazines containing 30 or more rounds enable a single person to kill many people quickly, which is precisely what they were designed to do. Congress — which has made the ownership of fully automatic weapons subject to severe restrictions among civilians —responded to the Las Vegas shooting with a plan to ban “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic rifles of the kind Paddock used to be fired more rapidly, albeit at the cost of accuracy.
This is, to put it mildly, a tinkering at the extreme margins.
Then again, that’s really all we can do, given the state of our politics and the state of our laws. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment is a personal right. The court has also held that the amendment covers weapons of common military use, even if the concept of a fully-automatic battle rifle was as alien to the authors of the Second Amendment as a space shuttle. And the court has said the “militia” as defined in the Second Amendment consists of all able-bodied people capable of acting in concert for the common defense.
Former Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the court’s liberals, argues that the Second Amendment should be read to guarantee an individual’s right to bear arms while actually serving in the militia. But that language doesn’t appear in the existing text, and the court’s jurisprudence doesn’t embrace that idea, as sensible as it may be.
Besides, even if Congress were to muster the will to ban, say, all semi-automatic and fully-automatic rifles (and if that wasn’t politically possible after the murder of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, one struggles to imagine the circumstances when it would be), there are millions of these weapons already in circulation. How would they be collected? There are more than 300 million guns of all kinds in America, from handguns to rifles to shotguns, and in 2015, there were just 2,618 special agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Enthusiasts who have collected these weapons (and who fear the day the government prohibits them as the dawn of ultimate tyranny) are unlikely to simply hand them over.
As much as we’d like to think that the sheer weight of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history must inevitably this time lead to change, very little is likely to happen. While the Second Amendment isn’t holy scripture handed down from on high, and while it could be changed if Americans collectively decided it should be done, the chances of that don’t appear likely. As a result, gun laws will likely remain as they are, and weapons will likely remain available, for purposes benign and malevolent alike.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that can be done. For example, there are small, admittedly inadequate, steps that could be taken to make it slightly more difficult for criminals or people who’ve been diagnosed with mental disorders from getting a firearm.
In Nevada, voters passed an initiative that would have extended the background checks conducted by licensed dealers in stores and at gun shows now to all sales, including those involving private parties. The measure passed very narrowly — a sign of how even moderate, sensible reforms are controversial — but it’s been hamstrung by a technicality. (The measure’s authors conscripted the FBI to conduct the checks instead of the state, in order to avoid attaching a fee that could have killed the initiative. But since the state already conducts comprehensive state-federal checks, the FBI declined to conduct separate checks exclusively for private gun purchases.) In the wake of the October 1 shooting, Gov. Brian Sandoval and others have asked if it could somehow be implemented, and a lawsuit has been filed toward that end. It’s a small step, but one that there’s no good reason to oppose. (It must be said, however, that a background check would not have stopped Paddock from acquiring a single weapon; his arsenal was purchased legally over time.)
Another issue: The fitness of our mental health care system, which will be pressed into service to care for the people who witnessed or responded to the shooting. Their pain at seeing the horrific aftermath of such violence cannot be left out of the conversation as the city learns to live with the wounds inflicted not just on the bodies of its residents and guests, but its psyche. This is to say nothing of the mental health needs of the family and loved ones of shooting victims, who will also bear emotional pains that may manifest in countless ways. And a more robust mental health system might also allow us to identify people suffering from mental problems who are also inclined to violence, and stop it before it occurs.
Also, making high-rise buildings and resorts more secure, from heightened profiling of hotel guests to retrofitting windows with security glass that’s harder to break, could also prove effective in stopping future October 1-style attacks. Steve Wynn, for example, told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that any “Do Not Disturb” sign left on a door for more than 12 hours at his property triggers a deeper investigation, both for the safety of the guest and others.
Inevitably, this will work a change in the Las Vegas we’ve known in the past, the place where guests come for freedom, escape and where what happens here stays here. Las Vegas joining the list of cities that have suffered mass casualty attacks didn’t just put another name on the list; rather, it forever altered how the world views the city where concerns about terrorism and mass violence were far from mind. That, too, will be something the city’s leaders and marketers will have to grapple with as Las Vegas moves forward into this new reality.
But those things surely won’t stop a determined killer — and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. Now isn’t the time for magical thinking that this is the moment that we put an end to violence or the madness and hatred that inspire it. Hope is not a strategy, and if prayers and marches to quell violence were effective, we’d have had peace long ago.
Now is the time for being honest about what we are willing to do, and about what we’re not willing to do. If things remain as they are — and it looks as if that’s exactly what’s going to happen — then violence as a regular occurrence in American life is here to stay. It’s only a question of when, where and how many people.
That’s a stark and harsh reality, but it is reality. And the sooner we come to grips with it, the sooner we can decide to take whatever meager steps we can to make mass violence incidents harder to accomplish. When perfect choices are impossible, we’re left with only the imperfect.