2017-10-13 / View From Here


Some thoughts on Las Vegas

Not my favorite topic, but I suppose I should discuss the awful massacre perpetrated in Las Vegas last week in which around 59 people were killed and nearly 500 injured.

For what it’s worth, I stayed at the Mandalay Bay, the hotel used by the shooter, a few years ago and it’s a very nice, upscale place. Typical of resorts in Vegas, it’s a huge complex with thousands of rooms. It is unclear whether it is practical or feasible at facilities like the Mandalay to screen the huge number of incoming guests for contraband like weapons. Another question concerns restricting the use of do not disturb signs in hotel rooms to allow detection of dangerous activities.

The Mandalay Bay debacle has reignited, on late night television and other places, the issue of gun control. People quite reasonably ask why the United States cannot avoid periodic outbreaks of mass shootings such as the ones in Sandy Hook, in Orlando and now in Las Vegas.

I will first say that the right to bear arms set forth in the second amendment to the Constitution, or gun rights in general, do not resonate with me in terms of my personal life and experience. I do not own a gun or go hunting; indeed, I don’t believe I have ever shot a gun. I also believe it reasonable that there be more gun control and regulations in or near large metropolitan areas than in rural areas. For example, I just can’t see weapons allowed on the New York City subways.

Nevertheless, as a person not particularly invested in the second amendment, I will state that the actual gun regulation situation is far more complex than claimed by Jimmy Kimmel and others. As Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein said to CBS on Sunday, no law would have stopped the Las Vegas shooter, a man without a criminal background with no recorded history of serious mental illness. (His motives are still very much unknown.) And much of the incremental legislation being proposed would have been ineffectual, such as restricting purchase by certain demonstrably unstable individuals, closing the so-called gun show loophole, which allows some purchasers the avoid background checks or abolishing straw purchases of weapons.

Even proposals to reinstate the assault weapon ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004 grandfather (but register) existing weapons. Studies following the lapse of the law were inconclusive as to its effect on curtailing gun violence. Importantly, despite the dramatic nature of shootings like the one in Las Vegas, by far most fatalities are from ordinary handguns, not assault weapons.

Other proposals go well beyond measure like a ban on assault rifles and the like and prohibit, or at least very sharply limit, private ownership of guns. However, there is an obvious legal barrier, as court decisions have held that the right to bear arms under the second amendment is a personal right.

Even more to the point, we lack the political will to confiscate guns wholesale. There are around 300 million guns in the United States. Hunters, of course, use firearms and millions of people, particularly in rural areas, have a weapon at home or in their business for protection. In most states, you can get a weapon by showing identification and passing a background check. There is no realistic way that many people will give up their guns (or even accept registration) and a house to house search for firearms is inconsistent with traditional American values.

Unfortunately, the only realistic path is piecemeal changes in gun laws. For example, there is a broad consensus that bump stops, which can effectively convert semiautomatic weapons in to automatic ones, should be outlawed. There may be ways to improve detection of mentally ill potential buyers. But like it or not (and I don’t), prevention of crimes by a determined shooter like the one in Las Vegas, or of gun violence in general, is extremely difficult.

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