The nation awakened Monday morning to yet another pointless, blood-filled tragedy that stupefied, saddened and appalled us all. But if history is any guide, it will not propel us to meaningful action.
Once again a man — and it's almost always a man — has committed what by now is the most American of acts, in this case wielding fully automatic military-style firearms to mow down a staggering number of innocent people. Not in self-defense, not in the heat of battle, not, as far as we can tell, in pursuit of any clearly defined objective, but simply to satisfy some inchoate rage, frustration or alienation. As of now, 58 are dead and more than 500 are wounded in Las Vegas, where police say 64-year-old Stephen Paddock rained bullets from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel into a crowd of 22,000 people attending an outdoor country music festival.
No motivation can possibly make such a barbaric act comprehensible, nor can it lessen the pain and grief that will be shared by hundreds of families. Our hearts go out to them.
But let's be honest with ourselves: This has become an almost Pavlovian national ritual. In the days ahead, some will argue — indeed, some have already argued — that this is not the right time to talk about gun control or our armed-to-the-teeth culture, that it is too soon to dilute our grief with tawdry politics. But this is exactly the right time to denounce the scourge of gun violence. As it will be tomorrow, next week, next month and, most important, on election day. It was stunning to read the flash news updates when the death toll reached 50 that the Vegas mass shooting had broken an American record, out-slaughtering the Pulse nightclub rampage last year in Orlando, Fla. Does Las Vegas get a medal for that? Is this a challenge to the deranged in other cities to do even better?
The gun lobby argues that military-style weapons are necessary for hunting, and for sport shooting. But on Sunday night, we saw such weapons used for their real purpose — to kill large numbers of people in a very short time. Anyone who watched the videos of the shootings and heard the rat-tat-tat of rapid-fire guns will recognize immediately that these are weapons of war, not of sport, and that to argue otherwise is to either lie, or to not understand the difference. Neither is acceptable.
As our Pavlovian ritual plays out in the days ahead, we will again hear the canard that if the people who showed up to dance to country music under the stars Sunday had been carrying firearms themselves, the death toll would have been smaller. But even had more of them been armed, how would they have fought back against a man shooting a much more powerful weapon out of a distant 32nd floor window? They couldn't have.
One of the questions police will try to answer, and which will frame the ensuing debate, is whether Paddock obtained his firearms legally. But the question that really needs addressing is why we allow such weapons in the hands of civilians in the first place. The simple answer is that we lack the political will to stop it. Our nation is awash in firearms — by some estimates, the U.S. has more guns than people, and Wall Street investors on Monday drove up the stock prices of gunmakers. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 273 mass shootings — defined as four or more people shot in one incident, not including the shooter — in the last 275 days. According to a BBC report last year, the number of gun murders per capita in the U.S. in 2012 — the most recent year for comparable statistics — was nearly 30 times that in the U.K., at 2.9 per 100,000 compared with just 0.1.
We may not be able to control the violent impulses of our fellow Americans, but we must limit the weapons available to them and we must better enforce the controls that we have. Failing to do so is political cowardice, moral abdication. That we have continued to accept such weapons among us for so long means that this is who we, as a nation, have chosen to be: armed and dangerous.