After the worst shooting atrocity in American history, the question, macabre but inevitable, arises once again: is there any number of casualties that will cause America to think again about gun control? And, if these murders do turn out to be inspired or even directed by Isis, will the modern age of terror persuade America to think again about how dangerously easy it is for a fanatic to arm themselves in the name of some ideology?
The massacre in Las Vegas makes the case for curbing gun culture, whatever the background. Were the weapon not an automatic, a firearm intended for the battlefield rather than the mall or the home or public music event, the toll of dead and injured would be far lower.
Were the America of the recent past more aware of the dangers it faced, then there would be many more Americans alive today. Some blame for that must rest with the leaders, of all parties, who failed to see that real and present danger to national security, under their very noses. If not now, then when will America take decisive action?
Yet the precedents for political action are not encouraging. The brief period when the US did enact legislation against assault rifles showed a merciful decline in the gun mortality rate. That was hard-fought, passed only narrowly by the Senate, and contained a sunset clause that rendered it up for renewal – or not, as it turned out – a decade after President Clinton signed it off in 1994. In due course it lapsed, the logic and emotions stirred by a series of mass killings in the preceding years inevitably fading over time, and a different man was in the White House. No one has been able to revive it since, and the chances are they never will.
Hence the grim air of routine that hangs around an atrocity even of this unusual scale. For there is no necessary reason why another mass murderer, terrorist or not, with an even more extensive armoury, a more populous target and some more time would not be able to easily exceed the current gruesome record. It is strange, in fact, that in an age when America is rightly concerned about the threat of terror – including the plots of “home-grown” fanatics of all manner of religious and political allegiances, it would be so careless of the lethal dangers caused by such easy access to the weaponry of war.
Anyone with a clean record can, in the more libertarian of the states and with the right amount of patience to get past state and federal checks, eventually get their hands on the most formidable gunpower, of a type used to kit out a modern military (or terrorist movement). The difference between acquiring a machine gun in the Balkans or Iraq and in Nevada is that it is easier legally to do so in Nevada. Another, larger terrorist cell could do what the killer in Vegas did, and much more. A ban on selling assault weapons, it should now be respectfully suggested to the President, might succeed in preserving more life than a ban on Muslims travelling to the United States.
“Routine” such atrocities have long become, as well as the still more everyday loss of life through the use of firearms in suicides, armed robberies, tragic accidents and drug and gang crime. To a lesser degree than in Europe or the Middle East, America too has had to become more accustomed to terror. Yet, sadly, even a run of high-profile “domestic” terrorist attacks have failed to push America to wage war on terror on its own soil: the “Unabomber”, the Oklahoma bombings, the Boston Marathon, the San Bernardino killings, the Orlando nightclub attack and many others haven’t succeeded yet in impelling a fundamental change in the law.
And so it goes on. Exactly two years before Stephen Paddock decided to take the lives of so many of his fellow citizens, as well as his own, and injure hundreds of others at a country music festival, there was another killer on the loose. At Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a gunman went on the rampage earlier in the day and murdered at least 10 people -- before being shot dead by police.
President Barack Obama faced the press and the nation yet again, and voiced what could so easily be said again now: “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.”
Numb they remain. To his credit, the last President did his best to try, against all odds, and for the sake of the victims past and future, to deliver some measure of gun control to the statute book. Predictably, he made progress only on the margins, just as have most of his predecessors.
President Trump, even if he were inclined to do more, which he probably is not, would find himself equally up against the gun lobby and a fundamentalist belief in the modern application of an 18th century text – the historic right of an American to “bear arms” as set out in the Second Amendment. It is a law set out in the age of the flintlock that too many have fooled themselves into believing can be equally applied as matter of principle to an M4 Carbine. The Constitution of the United States, as has been demonstrated dozens of times, can be amended, and so can its Second Amendment be changed, though the process is necessarily laborious and slow.
Hearts and minds can be changed. Many Americans are already persuaded of the need for tougher gun controls, and more could be persuaded, both by force of argument and the emotional response to events such as those in Las Vegas. It does, however, require an act of political leadership on the part of the whole of America’s governing classes – the President, the Congress, the courts, opinion formers, the media and others.
That has long been lacking – particularly in the Supreme Court which has handed down a number of retrograde pro-gun judgements in the past decade or so. The simple conclusion to the question “How many lives?” is that there is no practical limit to the loss of life enacted either by reason of insanity or political terror or other motives that will force America to do more to protect its own people. The reluctance to do so is deep-seated, the attachment to the Constitution sincere and the persuasive power of the gun lobby formidable. There will be many more deaths before America thinks about tearing these weapons of mass murder from the cold dead hands of the National Rifle Association.
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