The New Yorker
Las Vegas, Gun Violence, and the Failing American State
By John Cassidy October 2, 2017
Of all the ways in which American democracy is showing symptoms of dysfunction, the inability to face down the gun lobby is one of the most egregious.
Photograph by Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Writing on Twitter on Monday, Matt Bevin, the Republican Governor of Kentucky, said, “To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs . . . You can’t regulate evil . . .” Perhaps not. But, as countries such as Australia, Britain, and Canada have demonstrated, you can certainly regulate the sale of guns, especially weapons of war, to good effect.
Between 1979 and 1996, Australia had thirteen fatal mass shootings. Since 1996, when the country introduced a law that banned the sale of semiautomatic weapons and launched a buyback program for weapons that had already been sold, there have been no mass shootings. None.
The United States, by contrast, introduced a ban on certain semiautomatic, military-style weapons in 1994—but allowed it to lapse, in 2004. While there is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a “mass shooting” and what constitutes merely another deadly entry on the police blotter, there is little doubt that the frequency of large-scale gun atrocities has increased in the past decade.
Between the summers of 2015 and 2016 alone, President Barack Obama responded to seven different deadly shootings. On some of these occasions, he didn’t hide his frustration at the inability of the United States to tackle the problem of gun violence. “America will wrap everyone who’s grieving with our prayers and our love,” he said on October 1, 2015, the day that a student at Umpqua Community College shot and killed nine people. “It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America—next week, or a couple of months from now. . . . We are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Citing the example of Australia and other countries, such as Britain, that have passed strict gun-control laws, Obama went on, “So we know there are ways to prevent it . . . And each time this happens I’m going to bring this up. Each time this happens I am going to say that we can actually do something about it, but we’re going to have to change our laws. And this is not something I can do by myself. I’ve got to have a Congress, and I’ve got to have state legislatures and governors who are willing to work with me on this.”
Obama didn’t come out and say it explicitly, but he was suggesting that the U.S. government, in its totality, is abandoning one of its basic duties: the protection of its citizenry from readily identifiable threats. And, of course, Obama was right. Of all the ways in which American democracy is showing symptoms of turning into a dysfunctional state, the inability to face down the gun lobby is surely one of the most egregious.
In the statement that Donald Trump read out on Monday morning, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, he didn’t mention guns, gun laws, or semiautomatic rifles—at least ten of which were reportedly found in the hotel room of the alleged Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock. Trump’s omissions were hardly surprising. Addressing the National Rifle Association in April, the President declared, “the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to an end,” and added, “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.” In February, the President signed a law that made it easier for people with a history of mental illness to buy guns, including semiautomatic rifles.
At the daily White House briefing on Monday, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, whether the shooting had “made the President think anything more about pursuing tighter gun laws . . . to prevent massacres like this from happening again.” Sanders replied, “There’s a time and place for political debate. But now is the time to unite as a country.” In response to a follow-up question, Sanders tried a different tack, saying, “One of the things that we don’t want to do is try to create laws that won’t . . . stop these types of things from happening. I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over four thousand victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country.”
In response to the tragedy in Las Vegas, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, ordered the flags over the U.S. Capitol to be flown at half-mast, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said, “This is a time for national mourning and for prayer.” Neither responded immediately to a call from Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, for the establishment of a bipartisan Select Committee on Gun Violence, which would “study and report back common-sense legislation to help end the crisis.”
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, preparations continued for the passage of the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act of 2017, a carefully misnamed piece of legislation that would make it easier to import assault-style rifles, transport weapons across state lines, and purchase silencers—the sale of which has been strictly restricted since the nineteen-thirties, when they proved popular with gangsters. Last month, the House Committee on Natural Resources marked up the SHARE Act and passed it. Until the shooting in Las Vegas, it had been expected to go to the floor of the House as early as this week, and its supporters, including the N.R.A., were expecting a victory. “There has never been a better opportunity to pass this important and far-reaching legislation,” a piece on the Web site of the N.R.A.’s Institute for Legislative Action noted last month.
Following the massacre in Las Vegas, the Republican sponsors of the SHARE Act will probably let a little time elapse before they put it to a vote. But there is little reason to suppose it won’t ultimately get majority support, at least in the House, while efforts to tighten up the gun laws will continue to flounder. In a failing state, that is how things work.
John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.