The mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead on Sunday night is, on one level, shocking and on another unsurprising.
It’s shocking in its violence, its cold-blooded calculation and its scale. Shocking in a way that something so awful must always be shocking to anyone who values and cherishes human life. Shocking to all of us who have not become numb to gun violence. To those of us who cannot and will not allow ourselves to become numb to it, because to allow this increasingly common and increasingly deadly sort of tragedy to become just another news story which holds our attention for a few days before being forgotten is to abandon our very humanity.
This is all unsurprising, however, because our laws and, increasingly, our very values, practically ensure that events like those that unfolded in Las Vegas will occur again and again. I’ll get to the laws shortly, but it’s worth talking about the culture of guns in America for a moment.
There is, obviously, a long and rich history of gun ownership in America. We are a nation born of the fighting of armed civilians marshaled into a revolutionary army. We are a nation whose land was explored by hunters and frontiersman. We are a nation populated by farmers and sportsmen and the children and grandchildren of farmers and sportsmen, the vast majority of whom were and are responsible and law-abiding members of our community. Our history — and the largely rural character of America for most of that history — forged a culture in which owning firearms, while never a requirement of responsible citizenship, was most certainly compatible with it. Where I grew up, in Michigan and West Virginia, there was hardly a household that didn’t have at least one hunting rifle in it. I’m sure a lot of you grew up in similar circumstances.
Recently, however — very recently — there has been a marked shift in what it means to be a gun owner in America and who it is that owns most of our guns. Some have referred to this as “extreme gun ownership,” in which people own a dozen, two dozen or perhaps scores of guns, including quasi-military weapons and hundreds upon hundreds of rounds of ammunition. This dynamic, which has resulted in a full 50% of all guns in our country being owned by 3% of the population, is perfectly legal, of course.
But however legal it is for a person to stockpile weapons like this, it’s worth scrutinizing why they do so. Yes, a small portion of these people are genuine collectors. I suspect a much larger proportion of these people, however, own numerous weapons for what amount to philosophical reasons. Many of these people — and I know a good number of them personally and professionally — are afraid of something, be it rational or irrational. A fear egged on by the gun lobby and a conservative media that has convinced a wide swath of Americans that there are enemies hiding around every corner and that our government is their greatest enemy of all. I further suspect that we will find out that the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock — who likely owned all of his guns legally — harbored fears like these. Fears which, even if they did not lead him to commit mass murder, inspired him to compile a private arsenal, which in turn allowed him to carry his rampage out far more readily.
We can legislate until our pens run dry, but we will not stop the next Stephen Paddock unless we truly understand how a person can come to live in a state of such suspicion and fear that they feel it necessary to stockpile private arsenals that have only one deadly purpose. Until we understand how a country that was once comprised of households with some hunting rifles became one in which owning a dozen or more military-inspired guns became a lifestyle choice. We must, as a nation, come to understand how something that was, until very recently, thought of as a tool, became a symbol of so many people’s personal politics and identity.
Achieving such an understanding may not be a simple matter, but it may not be as tough as passing new gun laws, which are obviously not easy to implement or change.
Part of this is by design. While, as a lawyer, I disagree with the legal notion that the Second Amendment confers an absolutist, unquestionable and un-regulatable individual right rather than a collective right of action (the words “a well-regulated militia” seem to be the only words in the Constitution conservative judges seem to think mean nothing) the fact of the matter is that any broad-based effort to ban certain types of firearms or to broadly restrict gun ownership in this day and age would be met with intense political opposition and legal challenge. Likely successful legal challenge, mind you, thanks to the current makeup of the federal judiciary, its view of the Second Amendment and the deep pockets of the National Rifle Association which has the entire Republican Party under its control and much of the Democratic Party living in fear.
The fact, however, that wide-ranging gun regulations seem legally and/or politically impractical in the current environment does not mean that there is nothing that can and should be done. Indeed, there are a host of common-sense regulations that we can and should pursue that do not violate the Second Amendment as currently interpreted but which would go a long way toward reining in the scourge of gun violence plaguing our country.
One of these is obvious, if only in hindsight of the tragedy in Las Vegas: outlawing devices that allow semi-automatic guns, which are legal, to be transformed into automatic weapons, which have been illegal to manufacture for civilian use for over 30 years. This relates specifically to “bump stocks,” which are attachments that enable semiautomatic rifles to fire faster, mimicking the action of automatic weapons. Under no set of circumstances should a person be allowed to legally acquire devices which convert a legal weapon into one that is essentially identical to those which are illegal. Thankfully, there appears to be some movement this week on that very issue.
Beyond the currently newsworthy topic of bump stocks, we should work to pass laws or regulations, on the state or federal level, as appropriate, that fall, generally, into three categories:
- Strengthening background checks, with particular emphasis placed on determining whether would-be gun owners have a history of domestic violence or other violent crimes, be they felonies or misdemeanors. This should be a no-brainer given that study after study has shown that more stringent checks, which flag people with violent tendencies, reduce gun violence, particularly violence between spouses or partners. At the same time, state and federal officials should work together to evaluate whether background check systems in place have full and immediate access to the sorts of records which would, if checked, prohibit people from purchasing guns. Finally, we should close loopholes which allows private sellers at gun shows and on the internet to sell to individuals without background checks. No one who is unfit to own a gun should be able to do so simply because there are holes in our nation’s patchwork of public records and our background check regulations.
- Regulating ammunition capacity, prohibiting magazines which hold dozens or sometimes scores of bullets. These magazines, which have no purpose in hunting or home defense, significantly increase a shooter’s ability to injure and kill large numbers of people quickly without requiring the shooter to reload. The time required to reload can be critical in enabling victims to escape and law enforcement or others to intervene. Large magazine capacity is a common factor in mass shootings, from Sandy Hook to Aurora to Las Vegas.
- Repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). This law, passed in 2005, conferred broad immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers from liability litigation. This safe space for gun manufacturers disincentives them from taking measures that would help prevent negligent gun sales by irresponsible dealers and from making innovations that would make their products safer for responsible use. Few if any industries have the level of lawsuit protection that the gun industry has from civil litigation and, as a result, the gun industry has far fewer incentives to take steps to improve product safety. The data collected before the enactment of this law, by the way, showed that litigation and the threat of litigation against gun manufacturers led to a substantial decrease in guns falling into the hands of criminals in some of our nation’s largest cities. Gun manufacturers should be subject to the risk of litigation due to their negligent or reckless behavior just like any other manufacturer of consumer products.
None of these sorts of regulations would take guns away from law abiding citizens or infringe on the their rights under the Second Amendment. All of them would work to keep guns from falling into the hands of violent criminals and discourage those who would seek to inflict mass casualties.
Ultimately, though, there are many complex, historical and cultural factors which have led us to this regrettably violent place in our nation’s history. As such, there is no one thing that can be done to drastically reduce gun violence in this country, let alone eliminate the threat of a mass shooting. Anyone who promises that they can put an end to such things is not being honest with you.
We can, however, do many things, each of them modest in and of themselves, that work to add a much-needed dose of common sense and responsibility to an issue which has, increasingly, led itself to intense, emotion-based polarization and special interest group-fed partisan rancor. We should start to do so, immediately.