Public mass shootings incite waves of grief, fear, and outrage that lead to a strong desire to do something. Inevitably, this leads to a national debate regarding gun control. Z. Byron Wolf reports, “The details don’t really matter when it comes to mass shootings in the current political climate. The script now is set — and depressingly familiar. Gun control opponents offer their ‘thoughts and prayers,’ but little in the way of solutions, while advocates bypass bipartisan mourning periods and immediately seize on tragic events to make their case.”
Unfortunately, rather than thoughtful effective responses, a number of prominent leaders have reacted by looking for quick fixes. A week after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, House Democrats walked out of a moment of silence held for the victims and then staged a 26-hour sit-in on the House floor to protest the Republican majority’s decision not to vote on changes to gun laws. Likewise, only hours after the Las Vegas Shooting, advocates of gun control were demanding greater restrictions on gun ownership. Even before it was known what weapons the gunman used, Hillary Clinton Tweeted, “The crowd fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer, which the NRA wants to make easier to get.” Also, “Our grief isn’t enough. We can and must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA, and work together to try to stop this from happening again.” Similarly, Senator Chris Murphy declared, “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. There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference.”
Even as the news media was scurrying to piece together the facts for the American public, the Las Vegas shooting coverage was peppered with continual debates regarding the necessity of increased gun control legislation. At first, the debate focused on an existing House bill titled “The Hearing Protection Act” which would relax restrictions on suppressors. Like Hillary Clinton, Senator Tim Kaine told the Washington Post, “He only was stopped finally because he didn’t have a silencer on his weapon. And the sound drew people to the place where he was ultimately stopped. Can you imagine what this would have been if he’d had silencers on these weapons?” The Washington Post fact-checker gave Senator Kaine two Pinocchio’s for this claim. Nevertheless, pundits repeatedly stressed how much higher the death toll may have been had Stephen Paddock had access to suppressors which would have prevented the victims from hearing the gunfire. This despite the fact that suppressors only silence gunfire in Hollywood movies.
In reality, suppressors only reduce the volume of gunfire by 20%, bringing it to the decibel level of a jackhammer or a jumbo jet on the tarmac 100 yards away. After investigating the pundits’ claims, Politifact concluded, “Gun silencers can slightly lower the visual and sound impact of a shooter, but experts agreed the impact would have been negligible in the case of Las Vegas.”
Honest news coverage could have dispelled the myth of suppressors by interviewing gun experts rather than political pundits. Even the least bit of effort to research such claims would have resulted in an immediate repudiation of the notion. Instead, the media repeatedly stressed the importance of killing the Hearing Protection Act as a means of protecting American citizens from higher death tolls in attacks such as the Las Vegas shooting. Uninterested in substantive changes, they pointed at the first thing available to make them feel as though they were making a difference. Several Republicans also eagerly jumped aboard the bandwagon, viewing this as an easy way to take a stand against gun violence without sacrificing political points.
However, this debate was quickly replaced when it was learned that Stephen Paddock may have used a “goofy little doodad” that had been approved under the Obama administration weeks after the Fort Hood shooting. Twelve of the 23 weapons in Paddock’s suite were equipped with bump stocks. According to Popular Mechanics:
Bump stocks are simple pieces of equipment that replace the stock of a rifle and add a small “support step” in front of the trigger. The shooter rests his finger on this step and pulls forward on the barrel or forward grip to press the trigger against his finger. The recoil of the shot then propels the rifle backwards into a gap in stationary stock where the loose fit gives the rifle freedom to bounce forward. This along with sustained forward pressure on the rifle, has the effect of ‘bumping’ the trigger back into the shooter’s unmoving finger. So long as a shooter maintains forward pressure, the rifle will continue to fire at a rate much faster than could be accomplished with even the quickest possible series of manual trigger pulls.
Despite the fact that few people had ever heard of bump stocks, including many lawmakers, it was quickly villainized as if it were the primary culprit in the Las Vegas narrative. Reuters called it a “major factor” in the high casualty count, and CNN reported that bump stocks allowed the killer to “convert a killing machine, an AR-15 rifle, into a weapon of mass destruction”. This was based upon the presumption that automatic weapons are necessarily more deadly. However, the addition of the bump stock may have reduced the number of casualties because automatic fire causes the muzzle to climb uncontrollably. Furthermore, bump stocks tend to cause rifles to jam and to overheat because they are not intended to be fired this way.
Once again, a little research, or conversations with gun experts instead of political pundits, would have dispelled the notion that the bump stock enabled the high death tolls. Nevertheless, the bump stock proved to be an exceptional scape-goat. By first villainizing it and then criminalizing it, the American people could feel good about its leaders. The bump stock was the quick fix politicians were desperately seeking. Senator Michael Williams admitted, “The tragedy in Las Vegas broke my heart, but any talk of banning or regulating bump stocks is merely cheap political lip service from career politicians. In reality, the bump stock is the new, shiny object politicians are using to deceive voters into believing they are taking action against gun violence.”
Oddly enough, gun control proponents readily admitted that no proposed piece of legislation would have prevented the Las Vegas shooting. Even Senator Dianne Feinstein, author of the 1993 assault weapons ban and long-time gun control advocate, admitted this. The Washington Post reports, “Asked by CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ host John Dickerson whether any law could have stopped him, Feinstein said, ‘No. He passed background checks registering for handguns and other weapons on multiple occasions.’” Nevertheless, Senator Feinstein was quick to introduce a bill banning bump stocks as if such legislation would have prevented the Las Vegas shooting, saying, “Mr. and Mrs. America, you have to stand up, you have to say enough is enough. No target practice justifies what happened on Sunday.”
Before it was known whether Stephen Paddock used any of the guns equipped with the bump stock, before it was known what effect this might have had on the effectiveness of the crime, and despite the bump stock not being implicated in any other criminal activity, politicians demanded the immediate criminalization of bump stocks. In other words, regardless of the facts, and regardless of the effectiveness of the measure, bump stocks must be banned to make the American people feel like they’ve done something meaningful to prevent future shootings. And as an added bonus for gun control activists, such legislation might also pave the way for future restrictions, as House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, admitted, “They’re going to say, ‘You give them bump stock, it’s going to be a slippery slope.’ I certainly hope so.”
Banning the bump stock may be a quick fix that makes people feel like they’ve done something meaningful, but it is likely to have virtually no impact on the real issue. Likewise, despite the narrative, there is little reason to believe that increased gun control would prevent—or even dramatically reduce—shootings.
It was in response to the growing number of high-profile mass shootings in the ’90s that Senator Dianne Feinstein and President Bill Clinton enacted the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. However, even gun control advocates have admitted that the ban made little difference. TIME reports, “In 2004, Bill Clinton’s ban on semiautomatic rifles, known as assault weapons, expired. But rather than spiking back up, the rate of gun homicides continued to drop. From 1993 to 2014, that rate declined from seven firearm-related homicides per 100,000 Americans to half that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Despite the rhetoric of gun control activists, the American murder rate has been steadily declining for the past 20 years. This decline appears to be independent of gun legislation.
Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said of the Las Vegas shooting, “Short of a total ban on firearms, nothing being suggested would have stopped this kind of shooting.” Mother Jones reports that in 62 mass shooting cases between 1982 and 2012, the killer obtained weapons legally in 49 cases. And of the 143 weapons used, 71 were semi-automatic handguns, 28 rifles, 23 revolvers, and 21 shotguns.
There is no easy resolution to the problem of public mass shootings because, at its core, it is a moral issue. As such, it is not something that can be legislated away. President Donald Trump rightly called the Las Vegas shooting an “act of pure evil”, but the problem with evil is that it is rooted in the human heart and is difficult to root-out. Genuine fixes are often painful and arduous, and they are dependent upon the nation’s relationship with God.
This article is excerpted from the paper “Mass Shootings and the Search for a Quick Fix.”
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