How do you outlaw crazy? Or evil?
How do you outlaw the internet?
Those aren’t questions anti-gun forces want to confront as they use the Las Vegas massacre to push for more stringent gun laws, any more than gun-rights advocates want to talk about the fact that Nevada has some of the weakest laws in the nation.
The fact that 64-year-old Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 and wounded more than 500 with bursts of automatic gunfire illustrates the folly of relying too heavily on the law to protect us from one another.
Automatic weapons – machine guns that continue firing as long as the trigger is squeezed – already are tightly regulated and have been since 1934. Federal law prohibits civilians from owning newly-made ones but does grandfather pre-1986 guns and allows their transfer with federal approval.
But even though the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence website said Paddock could do what he did because "he was able to purchase automatic weapons," he didn’t.
He made semi-automatics function like an automatic weapon by one of the methods — some legal, some not — depicted in YouTube videos. Do we really think we can stop the spread of knowledge — socially beneficial or not — in the information age?
OK, so we’ll make the "bump stock" he used illegal. But murder already is illegal — and he ignored that law at least 58 times. Does anyone really think he would have been stopped by one more statute?
Or does anyone seriously think we’re going to outlaw semi-automatic rifles – immensely popular for sport shooting, hunting and home defense, not to mention among militia groups – just to prevent their use or conversion in mass killings?
Tougher background checks? Madmen who exhibit no obvious symptoms – like Paddock – will always pass them unless we become the kind of prying, Big Brother society that I, for one, don’t want to live in.
Or are we ready to make everyone who checks into a hotel undergo airport-type screening just because Paddock brought in an arsenal in multiple bags?
Of course, we can tinker around the edges, and that will help in certain circumstances. Paul McQuillen, Buffalo coordinator for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, thinks a ban on high-capacity magazines like the ones Paddock used "could have helped." New York limits magazine size to 10 rounds, while Nevada has no limits.
But Harold "Budd" Schroeder, chairman emeritus of SCOPE – the Shooters Committee on Political Education – likes to point out it takes only a couple of seconds to change magazines. Still, in some situations, that’s enough time to give the NRA’s "good guy with a gun" a chance to stick his head up and return fire.
But at the Las Vegas concert, given the size of the crowd – sitting ducks in the open venue – how much would that have even mattered?
And there’s another side to the smaller magazine argument. Firearms defense experts will tell you that it’s a lot harder to kill someone than it appears on TV, often requiring multiple shots to take down one person. If you’re walking to your car at night and get confronted by three or four thugs, is 10 rounds enough?
Frankly, that scenario is a lot more likely than being the victim of a mass shooting, despite the media coverage given such tragedies.
Limit the number of gun purchases within a given time frame? McQuillen, with a nod toward collectors, is more interested in flagging large ammunition purchases within a short time frame because "that indicates intent." But if that had been in effect a few years ago when .22 target ammo was in short supply and I hoarded every box I could find, I probably would have been visited by the ATF.
Yes, there’s probably a rational medium somewhere between New York’s overly restrictive SAFE Act and Nevada’s "anything goes" gun laws. But with the nation more divided than at any time in recent memory, if we haven’t reached that consensus already we probably won’t today. And anything we could agree on would not have stopped a meticulously prepared madman like Paddock.
That’s not an easy thing for a "can do, we can fix it" society to accept. But America’s individualistic culture and 2nd Amendment mean we, unlike other nations, cannot seriously curb gun violence without going so far down the road toward repression that it violates not only the Constitution but our national identity.
Because of who we are, we’ll just have to live — and occassionlly die — with mass shootings until we figure out how to produce not more laws, but fewer Stephen Paddocks.