One Year after Las Vegas
Where does the gun control debate stand?
Within a period of about ten minutes, 64-year old Stephen Paddock, positioned from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, fired 1,100 rounds of ammunition into an open crowd one year ago last week. The deadliest of its kind to date, the incident took the lives of 58 people and wounded more than five hundred.
As is typical with mass shootings, which occur on average nine out of ten days a year, calls for gun reform following last year’s attack were accompanied by sneers for the “thoughts and prayers” offered by lawmakers. As it happens, one year later, and even after a national movement led by the survivors of yet another shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida last February, little action at the federal level has been taken, besides Justice Department efforts to ban bump stocks, which could be overturned by the courts.
Some states and localities, though, have taken matters into their own hands, including banning weapons enhancements and raising the minimum age to purchase guns. But these moves have not been without controversy and some states have even loosened restrictions; at the same time, public debate has been enflamed by totally contrary responses to these tragedies. It is uncertain whether bump stock bans and other limited restrictions will have practical effects on gun violence and mass shootings specifically.
What is certain is that the debates over gun control lie on partisan fault lines, and are based on fundamentally opposing principles with little room for negotiation. Though gun violence in America is unparalleled compared to other wealthy democratic nations, large-scale pushes for change usually only occur after events like the Las Vegas shooting. One explanation why mass shootings draw attention to the issue as opposed to other startlingly frequent forms of gun violence is that they are senseless—the deaths of the innocents at the Las Vegas concert couldn’t be chalked up to gang violence, terrorism, or occupational hazards (as in instances of police brutality). The shooter’s motives were, by all accounts, undiscernible.
The debate over gun control we know today in fact originated in another foundation-shaking moment in American history. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the issue of regulating arms was framed around crime control, though it was not too long before interest groups, including a formerly lowkey organization known as the NRA, turned the discussion onto constitutional rights. So began a decades-long entrenchment into the camps of second amendment defenders and public safety activists.
Recent federal action has been consistently polarized. President Obama responded to the Sandy Hook shooting by reportedly saying that he wanted to “let the NRA know we’re coming after them.” These measures, which included an assault weapons ban and research for smart gun technology, which wouldn’t affect mass shootings but might help unintentional gun shots, did not make it to the legislative agenda. One wonders if the NRA even felt the threat. As Congress failed to adopt the measures the president publicly espoused but could not himself legally enact, several painfully similar incidents have occurred in the following years.
President Obama’s efforts were emblematic of the challenges in responding to mass shootings where policy debates are politicized along a seemingly fundamental divide. Because the motives of mass shooters are often opaque, a whole host of reasons based only on speculation come into play, leaving the field of policy action vulnerable to just as many objections—violence in the media, mental health issues, reactions against social changes. These are generally the issues addressed in response to mass shootings.
Still—when a person hauls 23 weapons, carefully packed into suitcases and duffle bags, more than they could hope to fire in a single attack, up to a sniper’s nest outfitted with cameras to warn of the authority’s approach and windows burst through for multiple vantages onto an exposed crowd of thousands, what else is one to assume but hideous and nihilistic cruelty?
President Trump called the act “pure evil,” and, as if following up on Obama’s promise, called his fellow Republicans “afraid” of the NRA, only to deliver a televised speech to the association three months later defending second amendment rights and entertaining a proposal to arm teachers. But Americans have near unanimous support for other proposals. 94 percent of Americans support expanding background checks. The NRA, however, officially opposes background checks and firearm registration “because background checks don’t stop criminals from getting firearms” and because it deprives individuals of “due process of law.”
Dianne Feinstein, who wrote the 1994 assault weapons ban following two high profile shootings with 57 combined fatalities, agreed with at least part of the NRA’s argument, saying that none of the proposed expansions of background checks would have prevented Stephen Paddock from buying the weapons he did. Though other screening measures or more comprehensive weapons registration could have stopped him from buying 33 weapons in the year leading up to the incident, he would have only needed one, plus ammunition, to have a similar outcome.
These observations make it apparent that gun control activists, and not their opponents, have the advantage of being self-consistent.
Consider that if second amendment defenders don’t believe in the power of background checks and bump stock bans in preventing mass shootings, or at least think that they are not worth potential constitutional rights violations, then they tacitly agree with gun control proponents on something. Stephen Paddock would have purchased egregious quantities of weapons despite screening measures and registrations, and would have taught himself rapid fire techniques regardless of accessories bans. The only thing that would have prevented him from a massacre of innocents, then, is the gun itself. The only relevant detail in the policy debate is the gun, and it’s the last thing legislators want to touch.
In such a situation, a tragedy that is left unanswered is at high-risk of becoming ordinary, another remainder in the statistical compilations of American carnage. Such is the case with other forms of gun violence whose ubiquity is a distinctly American phenomenon, such as police shootings, suicides, and accidental discharges.
If second-amendment defenders were actually committed to preventing mass shootings, then an assault weapons ban would be the very least they could concede. (Senator Feinstein proposed another again last week.) But the unwillingness to do so is rooted in a belief they hold as self-evident, that the right to own guns is non-negotiable. It is clear from arguments on the right upholding the primacy of gun rights that there is no similarly enshrined commitment to the preservation of life. To follow the logic, American protections of liberty make mass shootings and gun violence generally an unfortunate inevitability of the law. The culture of gun ownership in America—which is no small minority—prioritizes a freedom-loving self-image and a fear of tyranny over justice for gun violence of all kinds.
The horror of what happened in Las Vegas, now separated from us today by hundreds of mass shootings, is indelible. To put oneself, one’s right to own weapons, one’s fears, one’s national association, in front of any measure that might prevent it is callous. It is as callous as those who ignore the injustices of police brutality, those deprivations of due process, or accidental discharges that often affect unwitting children. It is callous that they do so while claiming themselves defenders of liberty.
Many suffer over that wager of lifestyle over safety. Unsurprisingly, those who can afford to make it, white men, are statistically less affected by it. This inaction calls for a revaluation of the terms in which we frame the issue—is it a debate about gun control or is it about crime control? When we talk about what happened in Las Vegas, our confrontation with its brute senselessness must recognize that it is a problem of culture, community, and power. To enable the culture of gun ownership is to reaffirm its privilege and its power, and expose the community to purposeless horror.
Chris Howard-Woods graduated from The New School in 2018, and was the co-editor of #Charlottesville: White Supremacy, Populism, and Resistance, published by OR Books in 2018. He works in political science at W. W. Norton & Co.