Two Dark American Truths From Las Vegas

On the certainty of more shootings

Boots on a sidewalk outside the concert venue in Las Vegas (Steve Marcus / Reuters)

Beyond the scores of people who have been killed and the hundreds who have been wounded in Las Vegas today, thousands of other people, though not visibly or directly injured, have had their lives changed forever. Children and parents. Husbands and wives. Brothers and sisters. Something is instantly and permanently gone from their lives. Co-workers and friends. Members of churches or sports leagues or the PTA. Customers and clients and students. Neighbors and casual acquaintances at the coffee shop or the bar. The rest of their days will be different and shadowed because of this massacre. “Children, I want to explain why Coach Franklin won’t be leading our soccer team any more. Something bad happened, and ...”

The dead and the wounded, and their family and friends, of course deserve most support and sympathy. But their fellow countrymen should reflect on two dark truths the episode underscores. I was going to end that sentence with “reveals,” but that’s not right: We know these things already.

The first is that America will not stop these shootings. They will go on. We all know that, which makes the immediate wave of grief even worse.

Five years ago, after what was the horrific mass shooting of that moment, I wrote an item called “The Certainty of More Shootings.” It was about the massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and after acknowledging the victims it said:

The additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else.

That remains true now. I expect it to be true five years from now. I am an optimist about most aspects of America’s resilience and adaptability, but not about reversing America’s implicit decision to let these killings go on.

Decision? Yes. Other advanced societies have outbreaks of mass-shooting gun violence. Scotland, in 1996. Australia, in 1996 as well. Norway in 2011. But only in the United States do they come again and again and again.

The story of Australia’s response to its Port Arthur massacre is the most famous (and is retold here). A conservative government pushed through significant gun-law reforms, and the country has had no remotely comparable episode since then. The story of Scotland’s reaction to its Dunblane massacre is less familiar but is also important. The Dunblane shooting was Scotland’s version of the Newtown horror in America. A gunman killed 16 students, and a teacher, before shooting himself. As a Scottish newspaper the Sunday Herald notes what happened next:

Despite gun control measures undertaken since Dunblane, there are still plenty of guns in mainland Britain. …

In the 10 years between 2003 and 2012, there were 182 recorded allegations of firearms being used in a school or college in Scotland. There were five years in that decade in which gun murders committed in Scotland still remain unsolved until this day. …

Despite these facts, it is highly suggestive that those gun controls implemented after 1996 worked. The year of the Dunblane massacre, gun homicides peaked at 84 across the UK—the most on record. Today, gun killings have dropped to almost a third of that. In England and Wales in 2012/13, the police recorded 30 gun homicides, 12 fewer than the previous year, and the lowest figure since the National Crime Recording Standard was introduced in 2002.

Today, in Scotland, firearms account for just 2 percent of all homicides, and [a graph] starkly shows how gun deaths in Scotland have dropped since the introduction of those handgun laws.

Three years after the Aurora shooting, I did an update about all the gun massacres that had happened since then. The toll goes on. Here’s an update just of 2017’s mass shootings from the Mass Shooting Tracker, updated to include early counts of today’s casualties:

No other society allows the massacres to keep happening. Everyone around the world knows this about the United States. It is the worst aspect of the American national identity.

* * *

Here’s the other dark truth about America that today’s shooting reminds us of. The identity of the shooter doesn’t affect how many people are dead or how grievously their families and communities are wounded. But we know that everything about the news coverage and political response would be different, depending on whether the killer turns out to be “merely” a white American man with a non-immigrant-sounding name.

That’s who most mass-shooters turn out to be, from Charles Whitman at the University of Texas tower back in 1966 onward. And from Whitman onward, killers of this sort are described as “deranged” or “disturbed” or “resentful,” their crimes a reflection of their own torment rather than any larger trend or force.  They are “troubled” youths, like the white teenaged boy who shot up classmates in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, or the two white teenaged boys who shot up classmates in Columbine, Colorado, two years later, or the white teenaged boy who carried out the atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut. Or troubled older people, like the white man in his 60s who shot up the congressional baseball game this summer, or (on initial reports) the white man in his 60s who murdered so many people today. A report on the congressional-baseball shooter described his “descent into rage.”

These people are indeed deranged and angry and disturbed, and the full story of today’s killer is not yet known. It is possible that he will prove to have motives or connections beyond whatever was happening in his own mind (as Graeme Wood explains). But we know that if the killers were other than whites with “normal” names, the responsibility for their crime would not be assigned solely to themselves and their tortured psyches.

  • If they had Arab-sounding names, this would be a new episode of jihad. How often has Donald Trump invoked “San Bernardino” in his speeches, as shorthand for the terrorist threat in our heartland?
  • If they were Mexican, they would demonstrate the perils of immigration, and that Mexico is “not sending its best people.”
  • If they had been illegal immigrants, they’d dramatize the need to crack down harder, right now.
  • And if they had been black, I shudder to imagine the consequences.
* * *

This is who we are.

I was going to add, “—unless we decide to change,” but that’s the kind of mandatory-uplift note you put, because you have to, at the end of a speech.

This is who we are.