Mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas yesterday, which killed at least 58 people, tend to prompt knee-jerk calls for more gun control, which typically have no logical connection to the horrifying event that precipitates them. Nicholas Kristof's column in today's New York Times is an excellent example of this mind-clouding genre, promising in the headline policies aimed at "Preventing Future Mass Shootings Like the Vegas Strip Attack," then admitting in the 15th paragraph that his proposals have little or nothing to do with that.
Kristof begins with a pre-emptive scolding of anyone who does not respond to the Las Vegas massacre the way he thinks they should. "After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas," he says, "the impulse of politicians will be to lower flags, offer moments of silence, and lead a national mourning. Yet what we need most of all isn't mourning, but action to lower the toll of guns in America."
What sort of action? Kristof lists eight specific ideas, including establishing a minimum purchase age of 21 for firearms, limiting gun purchases by any given buyer "to no more than, say, two a month," promoting "smart guns," requiring "microstamping of cartridges so that they can be traced to the gun that fired them," requiring safe storage of firearms, and spending more money on research "to see what interventions will be more effective in reducing gun deaths." Only two of his ideas are even superficially plausible as responses to mass shootings: "universal background checks for anyone buying a gun" and "a ban on possession of guns by anyone subject to a domestic violence protection order."
Universal background checks are not truly universal, of course, since not everyone will comply with the law, and the government cannot possibly monitor every gun transfer. Even if we ignore that point, background checks can stop gun purchases only by people who are legally disqualified from owning firearms, which mass shooters rarely are.
The two major disqualifying criteria that are flagged by background checks are a criminal record (any felony or a misdemeanor involving domestic violence) or a history of court-ordered psychiatric treatment. We don't know much yet about the Las Vegas shooter, identified by police as Stephen Paddock (above right), a 64-year-old accountant who lived in Mesquite, Nevada, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. But ABC News reports that Paddock "had no criminal history, save a minor citation." Odds are he was never subjected to involuntary psychiatric treatment either. According to The Washington Post, Paddock's brother said "he did not know of any mental illness, alcohol or drug problems in his brother's life." In all likelihood Paddock legally purchased his guns, possibly after passing multiple background checks.*
There is no indication that Paddock was subject to a domestic violence protection order when he bought his guns. His crime, which involved firing on total strangers attending a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Resort and Casino, does not seem to have stemmed from a domestic dispute. The Post reports that "Paddock's family said there was nothing in his past that would suggest violence."
Kristof eventually concedes that "it's too soon to know what, if anything, might have prevented the shooting in Las Vegas, and it may be that nothing could have prevented it." His column, in other words, is a 20-paragraph non sequitur.
Kristof also admits that "mass shootings are anomalies," since "most gun deaths occur in ones or twos, usually with handguns (which kill far more people than assault rifles), and suicides outnumber murders." But he knows that mass shootings attract a lot of attention, and he hopes to take advantage of that. Never mind that street crime and suicides have nothing to do with what happened in Las Vegas yesteday, except that all three involve guns. Well, Paddock did eventually kill himself, so there's that.
The policies Kristof favors should be judged on their own merits, without reference to what has been described as the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Using the feelings of dismay, anger, and sadness provoked by that event to push policies that we have no reason to believe would or could have prevented it is the crassest sort of emotionalism and demagoguery. If you are truly outraged by the Las Vegas massacre, Kristof is saying, you will agree with him about gun control. There is so little logic to that syllogism that it does not even qualify as an argument.
*Update: The Times reports that Paddock did pass federal background checks: "Christopher Sullivan, general manager of Guns & Guitars, a gun store in Mesquite, confirmed that Mr. Paddock bought three guns at his shop within the last year—a handgun and two rifles. All the purchases were legal and cleared routine federal screening, Mr. Sullivan said."