The massacre in Las Vegas was horrifying, the reaction to it dispiriting.
The dead and wounded had not even been transported away from the killing field when the by-now-familiar disinformation campaign began on social media, with baseless reporting about the killer’s identity and motivation ranging from claims that he was an Islamic extremist to tales that he was an angry left-winger who targeted the country-music concert because he thought it sure to be full of Donald Trump fans. As of this writing, there is no indication of what motivated the killer beyond the desire to kill. There was no political or religious manifesto, and his mystified brother reported that he had no such interests. He had no known mental-health record and no criminal record.
The instant public-policy takeaways were, as usual, a mix of willful ignorance, hysteria, and progressive wish-fulfillment. Vox sprinted to report that “since Trump took office, more Americans have been killed by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners.” Well. Trump has been in office since last January, during which time there have been no major Islamic terrorist attacks. Progressives insisted that the incident be labeled “terrorism,” though it is not clear that the killer had in mind any particular political or religious agenda, which is how federal law distinguishes terrorism from simple mass murder (Nevada law does not require a political motive for an act to be defined as terrorism).
And then there was the inevitable firearms panic. Lydia Polgreen, editor of the Huffington Post, demanded to know why automatic rifles had not already been restricted. When she was informed that automatic rifles had been severely restricted for decades, she explained that she meant “semiautomatic” rifles, but did not seem to know the difference. That is about par for the course in the gun-control debate.
As of this writing, it is not publicly known what sort of instruments the killer used in Las Vegas. Audio recordings captured what sounded like fully automatic gunfire, and that was attested to by experts with considerable experience in the field. If indeed it is the case that fully automatic weapons were used, that will bring up some interesting questions. Contrary to the usual progressive mythology, you cannot simply walk into a Walmart and buy an automatic rifle. Fully automatic weapons have been heavily regulated since the 1930s, and the manufacture or importation of new ones for the civilian market was abolished in 1986. Automatic firearms manufactured before 1986 can be purchased — at a price of tens of thousands of dollars — by buyers who pass an extensive background check conducted by the FBI and pay a special tax on them. So stringent is the regulation of these weapons that there have been by most counts only three episodes of a legal, civilian-owned fully automatic weapon having been used in a violent crime since Al Capone was tearing up Chicago. But things that happen rarely are not things that happen never: No one was thinking very much about fertilizer bombs before the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
It may be the case that the killer in Las Vegas acquired his weapons legally. It may be the case that he acquired them on the black market, and it may be the case that he was able to modify legal semiautomatic weapons. But there are no obvious public-policy prescriptions to be had from any of those scenarios.
There were, so far as current reports can show, no obvious red flags in this case. That is unusual. One of the maddening things about violence in the United States is that so much of it is, if not exactly preventable, then at least predictable: The majority of murders in New York City, and most major American cities, are committed by men with prior criminal histories, often for violent crimes and not infrequently for weapons violations. We have straw-buyer laws on the books, but these go routinely unenforced, with federal prosecutors unwilling to invest resources in putting away low-level criminals — or their mothers or girlfriends — on relatively minor weapons charges. In several high-profile mass shootings, the killers were known to law-enforcement and mental-health authorities long before they committed their crimes.
The usual ghouls who deliver gun-control speeches from atop the corpses in these cases put themselves in a funny position: They insist that they do not want widespread firearms seizures or to revoke Americans’ basic constitutional rights, and then they offer what they insist are “commonsensical” gun-control measures that would do nothing to prevent the crimes that command our attention.
The sobering fact is that mass murders have become an ordinary part of our cultural landscape. There are people who, in the depths of some ineffable despair or rage, desire to exit the world in a hail of bullets and a flood of blood. Some of them are clearly mentally ill, some of them have half-formed political notions — and some of them just want to kill a great many people before taking their own lives. If there were some public-policy innovation consistent with the principles of our constitutional order that would prevent this, we’d support it. But there isn’t one. We are not going to convert our country into a police state — and free, open, liberal societies are vulnerable to acts of mass violence, not only in the United States but in Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries, including those with stricter gun-control laws. Those Kalashnikov rifles that were used in the Charlie Hebdo massacre are not legal in France.
So, do nothing?
No. There are many things that could and should be done. The vast majority of murders in the United States are not spectacular crimes on the Las Vegas model, but ordinary street crimes in places such as Chicago and Cleveland. We can and should do more to prevent those, both through enforcing existing weapons laws — including cracking down on straw buyers and handing down stiffer sentences for violent gun crimes short of homicide — and through improving our national practices when it comes to parole and probation, mental health and addiction, and local policing. Would that prevent a Las Vegas–style massacre? No, but it might have an effect on the 99 percent of murders that happen every day in a less dramatic fashion. And there are broader cultural issues — for instance, the absence of fathers from so many homes — that are mighty contributors to our national crime scene.
As for Las Vegas: As it stands, the facts do not argue for any particular policy reforms, and while we will withhold judgment until more is known, we should all be open to the possibility that not every crime demands a new law, and that not every ill in a large and complex society such as ours can be solved through public policy. Our friends on the left like to mock those who offer prayers for the victims and survivors of these horrific events, as though there were no Power above politics. We offer our prayers for souls of the lost and for the comfort of the living — and for the prudence and efficacy of those charged with the human response to these inhuman acts.