Another day, another mass shooting in America. Except this time, the horrific slaughter that unfolded Sunday night at a concert in Las Vegas is being widely described as the deadliest one in modern U.S. history. More than 50 people are dead, and more than 200 wounded, after the shooter opened fire on a crowd on the Las Vegas Strip from a 32nd-story hotel window.
The shooter has been identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, who is dead and is believed to have taken his own life. He lived in Mesquite, Nevada, which is 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. At least 10 rifles were found in his hotel room.
There is still an enormous amount we don’t know, yet speculation is raging out of control, as always. Here are a few suggestions for the debate that is already underway:
There is a right way to “politicize” mass shootings, and a wrong way to politicize them. As of now, the Clark County sheriff says of the shooter: “We have no idea what his belief system was.” Social media is awash in efforts to associate the shooter with one political worldview or another. Please, let’s not do this — even if and when that worldview becomes known. Such mass killings have all kinds of motives, from mental illness to a desire to emulate and outdo previous rampages. (There is also a related debate over whether ascribing mass shootings to mental illness is sometimes done in ways that end up scapegoating the mentally ill.)
There’s nothing wrong with trying to discern the belief system of mass killers, provided that this is part of a broader effort to learn all we can about the killer; provided that this belief system itself is not reflexively tagged as the cause of the shooting; provided that other causes are given due weight; and provided we don’t use those shootings to tar our ideological opponents and their worldviews. We all know what that latter tactic looks like. Let’s not do it.
That said, there is nothing wrong with politicizing mass shootings in a different sense: They are the right occasions for intense arguments over how to prevent them in the future. After all, if we aren’t going to talk about what to do about mass slaughter when it happens, when are we going to talk about it? Treating these massacres as inevitable or beyond the capacity for human problem solving — something that becomes easier when they recede in the news — isn’t an option. However, a major caveat here: We need to keep focused on the crucial distinction between mass shootings and the broader problem of gun violence.
Let’s debate mass shootings and the broader scourge of gun violence as separate but related problems. The difficulty with debating gun violence in the context of mass shootings is that we lose focus on the much broader day-to-day slow burn carnage of gun deaths in America. Mass shootings constitute only a tiny fraction of the gun-violence problem, and if we are going to discuss mass shootings, they raise their own set of distinct issues. They don’t just occasion an argument over how to prevent mass shooters from getting lethal weaponry. They also encompass arguments over whether we need increased funding into the multiple causes of mass shootings; over how to improve law enforcement efforts to spot would be mass shooters in advance; and over the scandalously substandard response to mental illness in this country.
The broader scourge of gun violence encompasses a host of different, though related, problems, shading into debates about suicide, domestic violence, and questions about how to reasonably regulate day-to-day access to guns that have little overlap with the mass shootings debate. It is perhaps inevitable, and in some ways desirable, that we will argue over these issues when a horrifyingly traumatic event grips the public attention — something that has served as an impetus to reform repeatedly throughout our history. But we have to take enormous care not to let mass shooting dominate and define the larger debate over gun violence, precisely because we need to do a lot more to respond to that latter problem, and to make strong, evidenced-based arguments for such a response. This conflation is counterproductive and destructive.
Let’s decouple the argument over the individual gun right from the argument over gun violence. My personal preference is for liberals to acknowledge the individual gun right, while making the case that reasonable reforms — such as expanded background checks — can be implemented in ways that are not incompatible with respecting that right. As gun-debate historian Adam Winkler has noted, the Second Amendment is not necessarily an obstacle to some of the reforms that are regularly discussed and would probably not be invalidated by the courts on those grounds.
The point is, even if you want gun reforms, that demand does not have to immediately devolve into an insistence that the individual gun right is the problem. Obviously some will often argue, when a given reform is proposed, that it does run afoul of the Second Amendment. But the argument that this is wrong as a substantive matter — that the reform in question does not do this - is one that gun reformers need to be prepared to make. It’s a debate they should want to have.