We will never know why. We already know how, but we don’t care about that. And we know, beyond the slightest doubt, that it will happen again.
There can be no rational motive for mass murder, which means that asking why Stephen Paddock turned the Las Vegas Strip into a killing zone is ultimately a futile exercise. He may have had nominal or imagined reasons for his homicidal anger. But nothing can really explain the decision to spray thousands of concertgoers with automatic weapons fire, killing at least 58 and injuring hundreds more.
The attack wasn’t terrorism, authorities quickly said, as if this assessment somehow lessened the horror. Would someone please explain to me how that works? Are friends and family members of the dead supposed to feel one way if the murderer yells “God is great” in Arabic, and another way if he doesn’t? What if the killer were to say those same words in English?
Investigators and reporters will now sift through Paddock’s life for signs of chronic mental illness or sudden psychological deterioration. But what will that search tell us except the obvious? Of course Paddock was disturbed. Who in his right mind mows down innocent strangers at a country music festival?
So the “how” of this tragedy is simple: Our nation is flooded with guns, and the constitutionally protected right to “keep and bear arms” — established in the age of single-shot blunderbusses and muskets — has been deemed to include military-style semiautomatic assault rifles and other high-powered weapons.
Sound from cellphone videos taken during the Las Vegas massacre clearly indicates that Paddock was using a fully automatic rifle — meaning that squeezing and holding the trigger unleashed a long, continuous burst of gunfire. Such machine guns were supposedly outlawed in 1986, but there are two huge loopholes: In some states, it is legal to buy and sell machine guns that were made before 1986; and internet merchants sell kits that convert semiautomatic rifles into fully automatic killing machines.
No deer hunter or target-shooting enthusiast needs a weapon intended for war zones. But if the Newtown, Conn., massacre of 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds didn’t even lead to universal background checks for gun purchasers, let alone a ban on assault weapons, I don’t see why anyone should believe things will be different this time around.
The Supreme Court has stated explicitly that reasonable gun-control measures are permissible under the Constitution. But can you imagine this Congress and this president doing the right thing? Neither can I. We’ll need a different Congress and a different president to make progress.
Carnage will continue
But even if I could snap my fingers and change the law, there would still be an estimated 300 million guns in the United States — nearly one per person. Which means that the quotidian carnage would continue.
Assume Sunday was an average day. If the Las Vegas killings had not happened, nearly 100 people around the country would have been killed by firearms. About two-thirds of those deaths would have been suicides; nearly all the rest, homicides — about 12,000 a year. We have become emotionally and intellectually numb to this appalling toll.
A mass shooting or a terrorist rampage, on the other hand, rivets the nation. Television networks shift into continuous “breaking news” coverage. Newspapers rush to profile the shooter, then the victims. The president makes a statement expressing the nation’s grief. Gun-rights advocates pre-emptively declare that this is not the time to talk about gun control, accusing anyone who does of politicizing tragedy. Gun-control proponents ask: If not now, then when? Everyone agrees we should do something about mental health, but we end up doing nothing. A long series of sad funerals ends the ritual.
We go back to our routines as if there won’t be a next time. But there will. And we all know it.