Why does anyone need so many guns?
This is a question that President Trump and other elected leaders, along with the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association, are trying to avoid.
The Las Vegas country music concert shooting poses one of the toughest challenges for the NRA and its supporters to date. The shooter was neither foreign-born nor foreign-motivated. He was a homegrown killer who legally amassed an arsenal of weapons he used to target an unsuspecting crowd.
High-powered, semi-automatic rifles of the type purchased and used by the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock are designed not for hunting or self-defense, but for combat—to target as many enemy combatants as possible in the shortest amount of time. So why does the NRA maintain every American has the right to amass these kinds of weapons? So that they can defend themselves at will without being out-armed by anyone.
“This is the price of freedom,” former, disgraced Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly wrote Monday on his own website hours after the shooting.
Under pressure to do something in the wake of America’s worst modern mass shooting to date, the NRA and a growing number of Republican politicians have said they will consider regulating “bump stocks”—a crude device used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock to convert one or more of his rifles into a relatively slow, but still fully automatic weapon.
This is a rare concession. Hardline gun advocates to the right of the NRA oppose it. And, it’s a symbolic gesture at best, sidestepping the issue of why the shooter was able to lawfully purchase so many powerful guns. The NRA is offering it coupled with a push for legislation to make permits to carry concealed handguns issued in any one state valid in every other, just like a driver’s license.
Paddock broke no laws until nearly the moment he opened fire. He had no apparent sign of mental illness or a criminal record, and had passed what background checks are required for retail store firearms purchases in Nevada.
He did not commit a crime when he brought ten high-powered rifles, one handgun and ammunition inside his luggage into his room at the Mandalay Hotel. He did not even break the law when he obtained a “bump stock,” as possession of one is—due to NRA lobbying—not illegal.
Paddock broke no laws until nearly the moment he opened fire.
He seems to have first broken the law only when he physically attached the device to one or more of his rifles to convert them into fully automatic firing weapons, which are with few exceptions illegal. He gave no sign of criminal intent until he broke his hotel room’s windows to give himself two clear lines of sight, 32 floors up and 400 yards away, before firing on the concert fans below.
“You know – it’s an open society,” South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune told an NBC News reporter after the Las Vegas shooting. “And when somebody does what he wants to do, it’s going to be hard to prevent anything.”
He continued: “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions to protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said — get small.”
NRA leaders have previously claimed that high-powered, semi-automatic rifles are good to kill vermin, although use of a high-powered round—designed to cause massive tissue and bone damage in a human—is literally overkill for small mammals.
But gun rights advocates have other scenarios in mind when claiming the right to stockpile such weapons including one incident that has become part of their tribal lore.
During the Los Angeles riots following the 1992 acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, Korean-American store owners used a variety of weapons to keep largely African-American rioters from looting. “They finally interview the Legend himself,” recently wrote one YouTube commentator about one of the store owners.
Hardline gun advocates also point to the need for self-defense after massive storms. In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York, NRA executive Wayne LaPierre wrote: “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone Criminals” and the “total anarchy” that may ensue are all reasons why people need guns.
But the other reason Americans need guns is to arm themselves against a potentially tyrannical government, or so many hardline gun advocates claim. This view was popularized by the so-called patriot militia movement against gun control during the Clinton administration, and which helped motivate Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City. It reached a crescendo, especially in Internet chat forums, during President Obama’s eight years in office, in no small part due to his race.
The NRA maintains that previously law-abiding, mentally competent citizens like Paddock should continue having unlimited access to high-powered firearms so they can either fight, or defend, the government, depending upon who is in power.
Defense against government tyranny was also the basis of candidate Donald Trump’s threats of violence, either if he did not receive the presidential nomination by his own party, or if Hillary Clinton as president were to nominate gun reform justices to the Supreme Court. The same view remains the undercurrent driving recent NRA video messages targeting liberals, the media and others who protest nonviolently against police abuses and who oppose President Trump.
Americans should make no mistake about it. The reason that the NRA maintains that previously law-abiding, mentally competent citizens like Paddock should continue having unlimited access to high-powered firearms is so they can either fight, or defend, the government, depending upon who is in power. That would be hard to do if citizens had access to less firepower than police and other government authorities. It helps explain why the NRA is backing legislation to legalize sales of silencers, absurdly claiming that silencers—as opposed to ear plugs or muffs—are necessary to protect hearing loss among gun owners.
Of course, when it comes to the protection of, or against, government, their logic is flawed. The language of the Second Amendment reads “to keep and bear arms,” and has thus been interpreted to apply only to handheld weapons. While it could be conceivably construed to allow citizens to have weapons like shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said on Fox News shortly after the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, no one argues that the Second Amendment allows civilians to keep and bear heavier firepower like cannons or tanks. The notion of fighting government forces, if taken literally, is a fantasy.
Americans must decide whether they accept the gun lobby’s logic. As NRA head Wayne LaPierre expressed it after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
Although the NRA has now come out in favor of slightly more regulation of “bump stocks,” (but not other mechanical devices that can effectively convert semi-automatic rifles into fully automatically firing weapons), it initially went dark for several days, refusing to comment and uncharacteristically failing to update its usually active Facebook and Twitter pages.
They still seem to be scrambling to respond. The gun lobby recently advocated to make it easier for mentally ill people along with others like accused domestic abusers to continue accessing guns.
Of course, it would have made no difference in this case. I run a training and consulting firm helping prepare journalists, aid workers and others how to protect themselves from various kinds of weaponry and attacks, including domestic active shooters. But the nature of the Las Vegas attack, with the shooter having a high, distant line of sight to target the crowd in an open space with continuous fire, would render even the best of training marginally effective.
The NRA may not be saying much, but Fox News anchor Sean Hannity has. Following the NRA’s bad guy versus good guy logic, he suggested that an armed individual with a modicum of training like himself (Hannity said he was trained by his parents who had “law enforcement connections”) might stop a shooter, “when they start to reload.”
A point his own Fox News colleague immediately shot down.
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for more than twenty years, writing for The Village Voice, The Washington Post, MSNBC.com and The Progressive. He won a Society of Professional Journalists national investigative award for his Mother Jones story, “Unmasking NRA’s Inner Circle,” after the Sandy Hook massacre.