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Hey, NRA: Stop assuming everyone who's a good guy will never become a bad guy

One thing we know about the Las Vegas mass murderer: He was, before obtaining all those guns, an “honest, law-abiding citizen.”

You know, the kind of guy that the National Rifle Assn. always says it’s trying to protect from “unconstitutional” firearms laws.

First, most gun control laws are not unconstitutional. They may be threats to gun industry profits, but not to the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative hero, put it best in a 2008 opinion affirming the right of individuals to own firearms:

“The right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.… The right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

No one has a 2nd Amendment right to tote around a military-style assault weapon. And courts have said so.

Neither does a person have a constitutional right to modify a semiautomatic rifle with a “bump fire” stock, as the Vegas shooter did. That allows a weapon to discharge hundreds of rounds a minute and operate almost as an illegal automatic.

Second, as we’ve seen time and again — although the gun lobby covers its eyes — too many people are law-abiding until they’re not. Until they get fired and mow down co-workers, or their spouse cheats and they unload on the family, or a professor gives a lousy grade and they spray bullets all over campus. Or they’re overcome by racial or religious bigotry.

We don’t know what 64-year-old Stephen Paddock’s hang-up was. But does it really matter?

What matters most is that he had an arsenal of 47 firearms. Twelve were equipped with “bump fire” stocks. At least 23, mostly rifles, were within reach in his hotel room.

It took just a few minutes for Paddock to devolve from being a law-abiding citizen to becoming the deadliest mass shooter in modern U.S. history, killing 58 and injuring nearly 500.

That’s why we shouldn’t be selling certain high-powered weapons to someone just because he hasn’t been convicted of a crime. And Paddock apparently hadn’t even gotten a traffic ticket in his neighborhood in nearby Mesquite.

“Look, take that [gun] element out of the equation and this event never would have happened,” notes Garen Wintemute, director of the Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis. “If he’d thrown knives or used a bow and arrows, that outcome would have been different.”

From the shooter’s perch in his 32nd-floor hotel room, looking down on an outdoor country and western concert packed with 22,000 people, “the victims were like fish in a barrel,” Wintemute adds. “He didn’t even need to aim, just point.”

We know most of these things. They get repeated after each shooting massacre, even if many gun worshipers plug their ears and their elected representatives offer only “prayers and condolences.”

Prayers certainly are appreciated. But if prayers alone were the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago. The Almighty already has given us a tool to help fix this: a democracy capable of enacting meaningful gun controls.

Another myth is that these killers are usually mentally ill, and if only we were more successful at treating mental illness, there would be a lot fewer gun deaths. Then we wouldn’t need to control weapons. Rubbish.

Yes, government should focus more on treating mental illness. No, treating the mentally ill isn’t going to make a huge dent in mass killings.

Sure, anyone who murders has a screw loose. But that doesn’t make them clinically mentally ill. The Vegas killer had no history of mental illness.

“It does a disservice to people with mental illness to equate [Paddock] with the mentally ill,” Wintemute says. “He was homicidal. That’s different.

“To say everyone who murders is mentally ill lets people off the hook,” he adds. “They can just blame it on mental illness. We know that mental illness by itself is responsible for no more than 4% or 5% of interpersonal violence.”

Another predictable dodge is that right after a mass shooting is not “the appropriate time” to discuss the divisive issue of gun control. You heard that this week from the White House and Republican leadership in Congress.

Well, sorry, but this is the best time, and the gun lobby knows it — while the sound of automatic gun fire still rings in the ears and TV footage of victims running and falling is fresh in memory.

If not now, when? Wait for a peaceful week? In this country, 32 people are shot to death each day.

Are gun control advocates now being “politically opportunistic,” as the GOP charges? You bet. That’s how it works in a healthy democracy: one side urging citizens to pressure the other side when they’re paying attention.

What could have prevented the Las Vegas bloodbath? Maybe nothing. But some things might have helped reduce the killing.

Start with banning those “bump fire” stocks. They already are forbidden in California, but not in Nevada. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to ban them nationally.

Limit the number of guns anyone in America is allowed to purchase and possess. A hunter needs a shotgun for birds, a rifle for big game, a .22 for plinking, maybe a pistol for home protection and two or three extras. Not 47.

Stop assuming that everyone who’s a good guy will never become a bad guy.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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What we know about Stephen Paddock

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