Stephen Paddock’s slaying of at least 58 people with relentless automatic weapons fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel has caused shock, anger and overwhelming grief. But it is a classic, tragic mistake to rush to the judgment that the Las Vegas carnage is the result of a failure of our gun laws to control maniacs, psychopaths, terrorists, the mentally ill or whatever other category might apply to Paddock.
Take the “common sense” gun control measures proposed by the Obama administration after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. From universal background checks to limits on the capacity of magazines to a ban on certain military-looking semiautomatic weapons, the ideas had varying degrees of merit, but none of them would have stopped Adam Lanza from stealing his mother’s firearms and killing helpless children and teachers.
The only idea in the immediate aftermath that might have made a difference in Newtown, Conn., was the NRA’s proposal to station armed civilians at the entrances to schools, thus making them harder targets. It was a proposal full of risks, but it was at least worth debating if the goal was to prevent another Sandy Hook. Instead, because of its source and its failure to “control” guns, it was mocked and dismissed.
As for Paddock, he never should have possessed fully automatic weapons, and banning the sale of such weapons and doing more to crack down on the illegal purchases of kits to convert semiautomatic weapons to fully automatic are worthy pursuits. But such laws will not prevent another determined killer from wreaking similar havoc at some random place and time in the United States, any more than they have prevented mass killings in Paris, London, Manchester, Brussels, Istanbul and so many other places in recent years.
The motives and means might vary, but the ability of bad people to find ways to kill in horrific numbers is a constant. Even repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating every legal firearm in the country — ideas that are neither possible nor wise — would not change that reality.
We have far too many gun homicides in this country each year — between 12,000 and 15,000, excluding suicides — but the weapons involved in most of those killings aren’t vaguely defined assault weapons. They’re handguns. The debate over how to reduce those deaths and whether some form of gun control can or should be part of the solution is worth having, but it has nothing to do with the people slain on the Strip.
A serious response to Las Vegas first requires us to suspend the fantasy that the United States is unique in facing such events. It also means differentiating between mass, random slaughter and the broader definitions of mass shootings — such as three people shot in a drug deal gone bad — that only confuse the issues. Most important, it forces us to acknowledge that increasing safety means decreasing freedom and that no free society is immune to horrific violence, as our brothers and sisters in Israel know all too well.