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What happened Sunday night on the Las Vegas strip was perversely, singularly American. The nation’s sense of its size, its culture, its broad existential vistas, its romance with armada, its literal and spiritual wide-open spaces — all collided with its tragic irony as a nation whose pugnacious, futurist identity derives from the ballistics of 250 years ago. Sunday’s events were a malign form of so-called American exceptionalism: What took place outside the Mandalay Bay Hotel probably couldn’t have occurred in any other country in the world.
When self-described professional gambler Stephen Paddock shot from his 32nd-floor hotel window into a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, 500 yards from the hotel, he would kill 58 people and wound another 527 people with an arsenal that included .223-caliber and .308-caliber rifles, Daniel Defense DDM4 rifles, and FN-15 carbines built, according to the company website, to “withstand the varied and unrelentingly harsh conditions of battlefields around the world.” He would by accident also begin the unraveling of the rationale that weds guns to regional components of the national identity.
Perversely enough, Paddock’s rampage may well have been the tipping point this nation required in order to make sure there’s no turning back from the growing social momentum for legislative change on gun control, and resistance to the stonewalling of the National Rifle Association. Like the savage killing of Emmett Till or the murder of four black schoolgirls in Alabama were signal galvanizers of the civil rights movement, the Mandalay Bay massacre should stoke the fires of gun-control advocates and their opposite numbers in Congress like never before. Why? Because we’ve never been here before. Not like this.
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In previous instances of mass gun violence, there was a degree of physical containment that made it comparatively easy to compartmentalize them. In Aurora, Colo., 12 people died in a 2012 mass shooting — in a movie theater. That same year, in Newtown, Conn., 27 people, mostly children, were killed — in select rooms of an elementary school. In Orlando, Fla. last year, 49 people were shot to death by another lone-wolf gunman — in the Pulse nightclub rampage.
What just happened in Vegas was something else again: Paddock exploited a kill zone as big as all outdoors, ratcheted up the symbolic killing distance with much of the weaponry of modern warfare at his disposal. Small-arms fire can't contain the debate any longer.
The vast open-air impersonality of the savagery at the Route 91 concert doesn’t just change the conversation on gun control in America.
This mass murder effectively created its own conversational ecosystem; talking about Sunday’s events in any way is to engage the scope, the scale of a domestic slaughter that we’ve never encountered before. It’s to enter into a debate about our militarism in peacetime, our foreign-war footing on domestic soil, all the things we’ve never previously debated like this, after an event that dwarfs every such American atrocity to precede it.
Paddock killed that certainty of the arc of the water cooler chat, the reflexive Sunday drive from Shock to Outrage to Grief to our casual resolution to put such tragedies behind us. Until they happen again. This nation can’t take that too-predictable journey anymore.
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The Paddock murders may also lay waste to another enduring American cultural norm: the infernal golden braid of gun culture, Southern culture and country music. That was obvious in a blistering, deeply-felt Oct. 3 essay in The New York Times by Rosanne Cash, the singer and songwriter whose passion as an activist and social spokeswoman are as sound as her pedigree (daughter of music legend Johnny Cash).
She wrote: “For the past few decades, the National Rifle Association has increasingly nurtured an alliance with country music artists and their fans. You can see it in “N.R.A. Country,” which promotes the artists who support the philosophical, and perhaps economic, thrall of the N.R.A., with the pernicious tag line “Celebrate the Lifestyle.”
“That wholesome public relations veneer masks something deeply sinister and profoundly destructive. There is no other way to say this: The N.R.A. funds domestic terrorism.
“A shadow government exists in the world of gun sales, and the people who write gun regulations are the very people who profit from gun sales. The N.R.A. would like to keep it that way.”
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Cash continues: “The laws we have in place to prevent the procurement of military-style weapons by mentally ill citizens are laughable by the standards of any civilized society. But even those pathetic restrictions would be eased if the N.R.A. had its way. Just this week, the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on a measure that would loosen restrictions on gun silencers and armor-piercing bullets (the vote was indefinitely postponed after the Las Vegas massacre). It’s not hard to learn about how millions of N.R.A. dollars have spread throughout Congress to influence that vote.
“If the proposed law had passed before the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, and the rifles in the assailant’s hotel room had been fitted with silencers, one could safely assume that the death toll would be much, much higher. Those who ran from the concert and survived did so because they heard the gunfire. None of that matters to the N.R.A.
“The N.R.A. will stick to its post-shooting playbook. It will say that we shouldn’t 'politicize' the Las Vegas carnage by talking about gun control at this time, and that this isn’t about guns, it’s about people, and that even more of us should be armed to protect ourselves. Enough.
“Patriotism and a belief in strong gun control are not antithetical.”
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Sunday’s tragedy was a road-to-Damascus moment for Josh Abbott Band guitarist Caleb Keeter, whose band performed at the festival and who described himself as a lifelong “proponent of the Second Amendment.”
“I cannot express how wrong I was,” he tweeted early on Oct. 3. “We actually have members of our crew with … legal firearms on the bus. They were useless. We couldn't touch them for fear police might think we were part of the massacre and shoot us…enough is enough…we need gun control RIGHT. NOW. My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn't realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it.”
Keeter’s tweet and Cash’s cri du coeur may be, and deserve to be, the canaries in the coal mine on the gun-control issue in post-Las Vegas America — leading indicators of a change in attitudes on gun access from the people who matter most: not the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but the everyday people who elect many of those lawmakers to Congress in the first place. Many American voters from the same constituencies. The same people who attend country-music concerts and who identify with rural, independent America, and who aggressively support the latitudes of the Second Amendment. The same people the N.R.A. has been grooming as members, and diehard champions, for generations.
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The cynical assumption is already in the works that nothing will ever change. But change is possible from Capitol Hill. If you doubt that, look at what just happened on Capitol Hill. As Cash mentioned in her essay, the House has delayed a vote on the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, a vote that was generally considered to be a slam-dunk for the gun lobby.
And more: The denunciations of gun violence from lawmakers, usually capped off with a ritual minute of silence on the floor of the Senate or the House, or both, was rebuffed on Monday. That’s when two congresspeople — Katherine Clark and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — walked off the House floor before the minute of silence in memory of the Las Vegas victims. Moulton, an Iraq War veteran, tweeted beforehand that he would “NOT be joining my colleagues in a moment of silence on the House floor that just becomes an excuse for inaction.”
Clark and Moulton know that what just happened can't be business as usual. When atrocities slip the leash of the expected, our response to those atrocities, as citizens and lawmakers, has to be equally outsized.
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Rep. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, knows it too. “This must stop,” Murphy said in a statement after the Las Vegas shootings. “It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren't public policy responses to this epidemic. It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.”
After Las Vegas, there is no “normal” anymore. President* Trump seemed to grasp how bad things were months ago. In his inaugural address, Trump condemned the epidemic of rampages “that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Except it didn’t. And it probably won’t without decisive action from Trump and the Congress whose members we elect. What happened Sunday in Vegas couldn't possibly stay in Vegas. More than ever before, we're at a national moment. This is the pivot point we have to recognize as a pivot point, if for no other reason than ... as presumably idealistic Americans, we never thought we'd be here. We never believed it could get this bad.
Dear America: If this ecumenical slaughter doesn’t provoke waves of citizen outrage; if this doesn’t elicit angry demands for change from people at town halls across the country ... if this becomes business as usual, we deserve everything that’s coming.
Dear Congress: If you turn a blind eye and ear to this incident and the stoically traumatized nation in its wake; if you refuse to be the leaders you pretend to be, the ethical invertebrates among you deserve what’s coming — starting, hopefully, this November.