The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
[UPDATE/CORRECTION AT END] There has been a fair bit of talk of late about how America is going crazy (I particularly recommend the trenchant analyses in that direction by Jonathan Rauch, Colin Dickey and Kurt Andersen), and it's on days such as this one that I fear there's something to it, as news trickles in about the horrific events last night in Las Vegas.
From the early reports—including the chilling video and audio recordings made at the scene—it appears that the killer checked into his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with possibly a military-grade automatic assault rifle and plenty of ammunition, and went to work on the crowd below, killing at least 50 people and injuring, astonishingly, more than 500 others.
I know the arguments for why we permit people to own weapons of this kind, but none of them seem remotely plausible or persuasive to me. Whatever one thinks of the scope and nature of the rights bestowed by the Second Amendment, the idea that the Constitution renders us completely powerless to limit the sale, distribution and ownership of weapons that are this efficient at mowing down large numbers of people—and that have no other real or legitimate purpose—is surely a symptom of a kind of political insanity.
And imagine the reaction had the killer turned out to be a Muslim—even an American-born Muslim—or someone with ties to overseas terrorist organizations. That appears not to have been the case; it was a 64-year-old white guy who lived about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. So undoubtedly our collective reaction will be what it always is after events of this kind: a little hand-wringing, lofty words about grief and prayer, some mumbling about "background checks" (and the ridiculous pretense that assault weaponry is perfectly safe as long as it's in the hands of people who have not previously been convicted of a violent felony or previously committed to a mental institution) and not a damned thing else—i.e., the usual kind of pathological paralysis. What kind of weird country lets this happen? As a headline writer for the Onion put it:
This is particularly disturbing, because there seems to be a lot of hate out there these days, and hate plus military-grade weaponry is a truly terrifying combination. It's not confined to either side of the political divide; people don't seem to disagree so much as despise these days. It seems to me that not since the mid- to late-1960s have so many Americans hated so many other Americans, across the political spectrum. It came perilously close to destroying the fabric of the country back then, and it could well do so now.
Of all the things I dislike about the Trump presidency—and it's a long list—his calculated strategy to make us all hate each other more than we already do is perhaps the most unforgivable. It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Of course President Trump didn't somehow "cause" the Las Vegas shooting to happen, and he isn't responsible for this massacre. But he feeds off our hatred for our fellow citizens and stokes it up, because he believes—possibly correctly—that it is to his political advantage to do so, whatever costs it may impose on our social and political discourse and institutions.
The National Football League/national-anthem controversy was the latest dispiriting example. He found an applause line to fire up his base of supporters—wouldn't it be great if the owners fired those SOBs?! Yeah!—thereby converting what had been a minor issue at the fringe of public consciousness into a major national confrontation playing itself out in dozens of stadiums and on television every weekend. There was absolutely no reason for him to say anything at all about it; the issue was out there, and people were figuring out, in conversations around countless dinner tables and televisions and water coolers, what they thought about the protests. But Trump jumps in, because he gets such a great roar from the crowd, and now it's Them vs. Us, a major national struggle in which we all have to take sides and in which everyone is either an unpatriotic jerk or a racist neo-Nazi.
I look forward to the day when we once again have a president who actually believes it is part of his or her job to help us get over our divisions, not to insert hot pokers into the wounds from existing divisions. Self-government is pretty much impossible if we all think that those with different views on difficult questions are all SOBs.
Many readers pointed out something that may have been misleading in my original post. Military-grade fully automatic weapons—true "machine guns"—which the Las Vegas killer appears to used (though he apparently had a substantial arsenal in the room, and I don't think the police have yet identified with certainty which of the weapons he may have used), are not in fact legal for civilians to possess; the National Firearms Act of 1934 severely restricts their ownership and use. Only semi-automatics—which have been used in many of the prior mass killings—can be legally bought and sold, and are currently largely unregulated at the federal level (since the expiration, in 2004, of the federal Assault Weapon ban, and the failure of Congress to enact a substitute).
[The difference, for those who are unschooled in these matters, is largely this: fully automatic weapons fire continuously with a single press of the trigger, which semi-automatics require a separate trigger press to fire each round.]
If the Las Vegas killer in fact used a machine gun, it must have been illegally acquired (or illegally manufactured by the killer himself), and it would apparently be the first time that such a weapon (as opposed to a legal semi-automatic) had been used in a U.S. mass killing. This is taken by some as an illustration of the futility of attempts to regulate these weapons and the ease of evasion. It could, however, be taken to show just the opposite; that we have up to now been spared this particularly effective and efficient form of public butchery precisely because automatic weapons are, by law, so difficult to acquire.
Whether a ban on semi-automatics would or would not alleviate, even by a small measure, this carnage to which we seem to be periodically subject is certainly a debatable point. The Australian example—a ban on private ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, coupled with a mandatory government-funded buyback of such weapons already in the hands of the public—certainly suggests that it is at least possible that such a law might lead to some demonstrable and non-trivial reduction in homicide rates and on the number and frequency of these horrific episodes of mass murder. [See discussions here, here, and here]. We've gotten horribly blase about these incidents which occur with alarming frequency; according to Fortune, if you define a mass killing as one in which four or more people are murdered, Las Vegas is the 273rd this year. And resigned to the fact that we are the only civilized country where this problem is of anywhere close to this magnitude. time we did something. It may not—it almost certainly will not—mean that we'll never face something like the Las Vegas (or Aurora, or Newtown, or Blacksburg, or Orlando, or …) killing again; but even a small step in that direction is surely worth taking.]