When asked to make sense of the latest mass shooting — the one that left 59 dead and 527 wounded — Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo replied tersely, “The world has changed.” I don’t know if that’s the answer, but it felt right in the moment.
In the same press conference, Sheriff Lombardo also insisted he “wasn’t going to get into the head of a psychopath.” I appreciated that greatly. The question really isn’t why Stephen Paddock did what he did; it’s how. The mystery of Paddock is such that even when we know all there is to know, we still won’t know anything. Paddock, age 64, was the son of a bridge-playing bank robber who made the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list. His father was described as “psychopathic” and “armed and extremely dangerous.” His mother raised Paddock and his three brothers on her own. Paddock himself appears to have been a gifted gambler, successful enough to buy numerous rental properties with the proceeds. He had two ex-wives, two single-engine airplanes, and a girlfriend who worked at a casino and could reportedly light up a room. He wasn’t political. In recent years, he took pains to make sure his mom had a walker.
Singer/songwriter Tom Petty — also in his sixties — would coincidentally die the following day. I don’t know if Petty’s father qualified as “psychopathic,” but he beat the crap out of Petty as a young kid. He reportedly left his son’s body covered in wall-to-wall belt-inflicted welts. Petty never forgot. I don’t think he ever forgave. He wrote some pretty great songs along the way. But for reasons we’ll also never understand, Petty never saw fit to take 23 guns to his room on 32nd floor of the Mandalay hotel and equip at least 12 of his semi-automatic rifles with a device known as a bump stock — perfectly legal, by the way — that effectively transforms the guns to fully automatic. Everyone reacts differently to the cards they’re dealt. Paddock is described now as “pure evil” or “sick.” Obviously. But to the people selling him guns, he was just another perfectly normal guy.
The point is that everyone has a good reason to explode. Most of us won’t. But some will. The trick here is to make sure when they do, they go off as firecrackers, not sticks of dynamite. I think about the Founding Fathers all the time. How would they react to women in yoga pants? More often now, I question whether they had such things as a “bump stock” in mind when they wrote about the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment. Could they possibly have envisioned guns capable of spraying hundreds of rounds of ammunition in less than a minute? When they wrote that part about a “well-regulated militia,” had they given thought to a single person with 43 firearms being a militia unto himself?
I ask such things because the Republican leadership is insisting, once again, how unbecoming it would be to politicize such a tragedy by discussing matters like gun control. House leader Paul Ryan, it should be acknowledged, did have the good grace to withdraw from consideration this week a bill that would have greatly liberalized the sale of gun silencers, reducing the waiting period involved for purchases from nine months to three days. The Hearing Protection Act, as it’s called because silencers reduce sonic damage inflicted on the eardrums of frequent shooters, also had to be postponed in June after yet another lone, white gunman in his sixties opened fire on a field full of Republicans practicing for an upcoming baseball game. That bill, by the way, is part of a sweeping legislative package that, among other things, would strip even the president of banning certain types of weapons or ammunition.
With an estimated 310 million firearms privately owned in the United States, it’s unclear what kind of legislative fix might help. That’s a lot of genies to get back in the bottle. It’s also no doubt the case that Stephen Paddock, being such a normal guy, would have passed any universal background check with flying colors. That being said, there are other precautions to consider beyond offering prayers or — has recently become the custom — urging others to donate blood.
After a mass shooting that left 35 Australians dead — and 23 wounded — in 1996, conservative politicians took action. They passed a package of gun-control laws, including background checks, a gun registry, and a 28-day waiting period for all gun purchases. They banned outright automatics and semi-automatic weapons. And they bought back about 600,000 firearms and destroyed them. They faced intense opposition. Australians liked their guns. After the first 10 years, Australia reported a 59 percent drop in gun-related homicides and a 65 percent drop in gun-related suicides.
When President Donald Trump was recently asked about gun control, he conspicuously did not say, “When hell freezes over.” Instead, he said such discussions might take place “as time goes by.” By Trump standards, that’s encouraging. More encouraging still was the “Enough is enough” call for gun-control issued by country-western guitarist Caleb Keeter, who played such hits as “Wasn’t That Drunk” and “Amnesia” in Vegas Sunday night. Although many in his crew were packing heat, Keeter noted, their firepower proved utterly useless in the moment. Some, he said, sustained shrapnel wounds from the ricochet spray from Paddock’s bullets. If Keeter isn’t just a lone outlier and more country-western artists got involved, that could change the political debate around gun control dramatically.
Is Sheriff Joe Lombardo right? Has the world changed? The 49 killed in Orlando last year might have an opinion. So, too, might the 32 killed at Virginia Tech or the 26 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But if we do nothing, it’ll just be the same old tune, only played louder and louder. Guess all that shooting can be hard on your eardrums after all.