Sunday night, a sixty-four year old accountant named Stephen Paddock smashed two windows in his luxury suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel, and, using automatic weapons, opened fire on a crowd enjoying a country music festival. So far, 59 people are dead, and over 500 injured. It’s not being called a terrorist attack, presumably because it doesn’t seem to have had an ideological motive. In fact, no one knows precisely why Paddock committed such a horrific act. What police are discovering is that this guy owned a great many weapons, large quantities of ammunition, and a sizeable amount of explosives. And it appears, at present, that all those weapons were acquired legally.
As usual, political leaders gave voice to their feelings of shock and horror, sending the usual ‘thoughts and prayers,’ and expressing gratitude for the heroic efforts of first responders. Also, as usual, conservative lawmakers urged liberals not to politicize this event. It’s unseemly, they suggested, to exploit the suffering of victims and their families to push for changes in gun laws. This tactic–and it is a tactic–seems to have worked. It’s okay to politicize tragedy to oppose gun control, unseemly to politicize it to support gun control. And the status quo remains unchanged.
We know how this will play itself out. There will be a renewed push for gun control legislation, which will go nowhere, and accomplish nothing. A few weeks will pass, and passions will subside. Nothing will be done. The NRA will see an increase in membership, and gun manufacturers will experience a bump in sales. And the Onion will run the same story they always run during these tragedies. The headline: ‘No way to prevent this.’ says only nation where this regularly happens.’ Also this: “Americans hope this will be last mass shooting before they stop on their own for no reason.”
The power of the gun lobby is truly formidable, and a reluctance to exploit human suffering is normal enough. Still, it is absolutely essential that these tragedies be politicized. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve seen interview after interview with law enforcement officials addressing the issue of hotel security. How was this guy able to bring seventeen high powered guns into his hotel room? Why don’t hotels check your luggage? What can be done to prevent this in the future? It’s quite absurd; the push now seems to be to make the task of checking into a hotel as unpleasant and fraught as the task of boarding an airplane. And yet, of course, people want to discuss how this kind of tragedy can be prevented in the future. Why is it okay to use this event to push for an increase in hotel security, but not to disarm Americans? If we’re trying to prevent future acts of gun violence, why is one possible solution okay, but the more effective and obvious one not okay?
But there’s another factor. There’s a reason why this is such a contentious issue. Pro-Gun guys tend to feel more passionate about this issue than gun control advocates do. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. People who love their guns, absolutely love their guns. The rest of us tend not to care that much, until events like this most recent one prove us right.
When I was thirteen, I went to my first Boy Scout camp. I loved it. There were so many possible activities I could involve myself with! I was there to earn merit badges, to be sure, but also there to learn the skills that would result in merit badges. I was immediately drawn to watersports, and earned merit badges in canoeing, rowing, swimming, lifesaving.
The camp had a rifle range, and shooting was a popular activity. The instructor was an older man who clearly loved his job; he was a good teacher, and his rifle range was a safe space. It was a ‘well-regulated militia.’ I tried it; everyone tried it. I wasn’t very good at it, and didn’t pursue the shooting merit badge (I don’t remember what it was called). Instead, I gravitated over to archery. It was a lot cheaper, and I didn’t have a lot of money, plus, I don’t know, I just liked it more.
But some guys, man, they absolutely lived at that rifle range. It was the only thing they wanted to do.
Have you ever talked to a pro-gun person? Some of these guys, this is, like, the most important thing in their lives. And they’re convinced that owning a gun makes them safer, that the best response to bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. All that stuff. Plus, of course, they insist that the Second Amendment gives them an absolute right to own any and all firearms they want.
Me, I’m indifferent to guns. Their existence means as much to me as it did back in Scout camp. Ban them all, and it would zero impact on my life, aside from making it a little safer. I just don’t think about them all that often. And I think I’m like most Americans in this regard. I’m aware that some people like to shoot recreationally, and that seems harmless enough, and that other people like to go hunting–which I have never done, and can’t imagine ever wanting to do–and that’s fine. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to raise moral objections to hunting, enjoying a good burger, as I do. I’ve shot a .22 rifle a few times, enjoyed it well enough. I’m not congenitally against guns. I just think we could save a lot of lives if fewer guns were in circulation. In fact, that’s obviously true–most other countries on earth have much stricter gun laws, and way fewer gun casualties.
So I don’t think about guns much. I don’t obsess over them. But come on; there are 88 guns per every 100 Americans, and that’s ridiculous. Every year, there are 33,000 deaths due to guns, more or less, and that’s way too many. As for the Second Amendment, the most preposterous Supreme Court decision of my lifetime, District of Columbia v. Heller, finally, for the first time, made the ridiculous assertion that the Second Amendment, rather than be about militias, gave ordinary citizens the right to privately own firearms. As silly as Heller is, though, it never says that guns can’t be regulated.
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.
So, yeah, Congress can absolutely pass national gun control legislation without doing violence to the Constitution. But Congress won’t do it. Too many congressmen get way too much money from the NRA. And the people who oppose gun control care way more about it than those of us who just want to bring some logic and factual accuracy to the discussion. Generally, most Americans support sensible gun control legislation. But we’re not all that passionate about it, unless we’ve lost someone to gun violence.
So, yeah, let’s be honest. We need to politicize gun violence. We need to raise the issue now. We need to push for legislative relief, and do it now. Because, let’s get real. 59 dead at a country music festival is just ridiculous. And 33,000 deaths annually is 32,900 too many. A lot of good people, enjoying music in a public space, were murdered on Sunday.
And, really, isn’t it true that any Congressman beholden to NRA campaign contributions is, to some degree, complicit? You want to feel better about yourself? Do your job.