The mass murder that took place in Las Vegas still doesn’t make sense. And while the violence would be easier to categorize if the 64-year-old shooter, Stephen Paddock, had a history of mental illness or extremist political or religious views or a grudge, it still wouldn’t make sense.
Neither does the way we debate controlling such weaponry in the hope of cutting down on such violence. Neither does the way we debate every contentious issue we face.
We’ve forgotten that well-intentioned people can disagree. We have abandoned the assumption that those with whom we disagree are well-intentioned.
We used to argue our politics furiously at the dinner table and laugh together in the den after we cleared the dishes. Now we dance around touchy subjects, or erupt in fury, or refuse to break bread with dissenters.
It’s in this climate that we’re grasping to find a path toward a safer nation.
Paddock purchased dozens of guns, accessories to make some of them act like fully automatic weapons, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. He planned his attack meticulously, sneaking in his weapons, avoiding the eyes of the housekeeping staff, placing cameras so he could see what was happening around his hotel room, and bringing a sledgehammer to bust out the windows of the high-rise hotel.
The 58 dead, not counting Paddock, and more than 500 injured made this the largest mass shooting in the modern history of our nation. The previous record — from Orlando, Florida, where 49 were killed — stood for barely a year. We fear, and law enforcement agencies prepare for, huge attacks that come regularly, yet we can’t talk constructively about regulations or changes that might prevent mass killing. Nor can we talk constructively about the much broader problem of day-to-day gun fatalities in the United States, of which there are more than 30,000 each year.
On one side, gun advocates say any regulation infringes on their rights and argue that restrictions won’t work. They base this on the spurious logic that many people would still be killed by guns no matter what we did, as if cutting fatalities by 10,000 a year, or even 1,000 a year, would be meaningless.
Now, worried that the nation is truly furious after Las Vegas, the National Rifle Association says “bump stocks” like the one Paddock used to make his semi-automatic weapons imitate machine guns “should be subject to additional regulations,” whatever that means. But in the same statement, the NRA renewed its push for a law that would allow anyone who can carry concealed weapons in states where such permits are available to all gun owners, like Nevada, to carry them in every state, including New York. And Gun Owners of America immediately came out in opposition to regulating bump stocks.
On the other side of the argument, the fiercest activists often tout changes few want, like repealing the Second Amendment. These positions feed the argument that allowing one restriction or regulation is, in fact, the slippery slope to repealing the Second Amendment, and incite the NRA to cry, “They are coming for your guns.”
Polls document and everyday conversations validate that regardless of political party, most people support mandatory childproof gunlocks to cut down on accidental shootings by children. They support mandatory wait times on gun purchases so some of the 22,000 gun suicides a year might not happen. They support keeping mentally ill people from buying weapons, and requiring background checks for all gun buyers, and the same for ammunition buyers.
Guns are far from the only issue in which debaters divide into fierce camps that demonize each other behind extreme views with which few would agree. Abortion is another issue on which many Americans claim to identify with one absolute label and demonize another even as their own views tend toward the middle.
Yet another such issue is patriotism and dissent. Most Americans understand both that this is a great nation worth honoring, and that our democracy is strengthened by our right to criticize the government. But now arguments over anthem singing and flag waving sort us into opposing camps, with only one allowed to claim patriotism.
We see ourselves as complex individuals, but our opponents as simple caricatures, defined by bumper stickers.
We have devolved into tribes. We give allegiance to political leaders whose professed views and goals might be more extreme than our own, but whose camps we recognize as the ones where we are emotionally comfortable.
The world is not a series of slippery slopes. The United States is not a land characterized by political extremists. But we are a land that’s increasingly listening to our most divisive elements. We’ve become more adept at seeing people as enemies to hate than at finding ways to see them as allies to work with. Because of that, it is a very dark time in the United States. The mass murders we cannot stop are a symptom. The fact that we cannot even reason together to try is the disease.