AFTER the worst mass shooting in recent American history, in which 58 people were killed and 489 wounded, both the president and the majority leaders in Congress sought to keep talk about new gun laws to a minimum. In Vegas that kind of reticence is called a tell. Had Stephen Paddock used a new technology—an armed drone, say—to kill from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, or had he been an immigrant from the Middle East, lawmakers would be rushing to legislate or tighten borders. But he was a retired white man who used some of the 49 guns he owned, so it is the price of freedom.
There is a weariness to America’s gun debate and the familiar ritual after mass shootings, which are more frequent than in any other rich country. One study counted 166 of them in 14 countries in 2000-14; 133 were in America. Yet, nothing happens, partly because the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has evolved from an armed version of the Boy Scout movement into the foremost mouthpiece for a view of America in which everyone must be armed for their own protection, has a veto in Washington—including over banning “bump stocks” which make semi-automatic guns more lethal.
If America could not overhaul its gun laws after Sandy Hook, when 20 children aged six and seven were shot at school, then what chance is there now? And even if tighter laws on new guns were introduced tomorrow, there would still be a stock of 300m firearms to reckon with.
Such despair is unworthy of this week’s victims. There are plenty of down-is-up arguments about guns, but the Las Vegas shooting, in addition to being the most deadly, has shown up the old NRA line that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun as the most deceitful of the lot.
Granted, America has chosen permissive gun laws for itself. But the body count does not have to be as high as it is today. Research into murder and suicide suggests that making it just slightly harder to get hold of a weapon can reduce the number of killings, many of which are spontaneous and unplanned.
It ought to be possible to write laws that respect the right to bear arms while banning weapons and modifications that make it astonishingly easy to kill a lot of people quickly. Most Americans favour such laws and would like universal background checks on gun purchases, too (though support for gun control is less fervent than for gun rights). Such a regime would still leave America with an unusually high number of murders, suicides and fatal accidents involving guns, but the disparity with other countries would be less glaring.
The road from Mandalay
Tired of waiting for Congress, some cities have introduced their own laws. In upstate New York, where plenty of people hunt, gun laws are permissive. In New York City those laws do not apply. Anyone who wants to carry a gun down Fifth Avenue must first obtain the permission of the NYPD. New York state tightened its laws after Sandy Hook, in effect banning assault weapons. Four other states did the same, though a further 16 responded by making guns easier to buy or carry.
Las Vegas, which sits in a state with some of the loosest rules in the country, should rewrite its own gun laws, too. Real conservatives, who champion local fixes for local problems, ought to cheer that. Of course it would not completely solve the problem. Cities like Chicago, near states with permissive laws, would still be flooded with guns. But in a country with 30,000 gun deaths a year, even small improvements would save a lot of lives. A rough calculation suggests that in the time between the Las Vegas shooting and the publication of this article, a further 320 Americans lost their life to a bullet.