By Minabere Ibelema
When a few minutes after 5 am. on Monday I reached for the power switch on my radio, I couldn’t have been more than 30 per cent awake. And so when there was a passing reference to a mass shooting at a Las Vegas hotel, I couldn’t process it well.
In the haze of a mind that was still largely asleep, it occurred to me that my daughter was on vacation there. And that thought jarred me to full wakefulness. No, my daughter wasn’t there. She was the weekend before. Still, I was reminded of how tragedies that seem so far away can be so close to home.
For at least nine minutes of hellfire, a gunman lodging at the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel had trained his rifles on the thousands of fans of the Country Music Festival, killing 58 and injuring about 500. It is said to be the largest casualty from such an incident in modern American history. My daughter told me later that she and friends lodged in a nearby hotel and passed by the Mandalay a number of times. In fact, they received an invitation to an event there, but didn’t attend.
Even then, I still think of it as a close call. Had my daughter gone to Vegas a week later or had the shooter finalised his murderous mission a week earlier, she might have been one of his casualties. Though she is not a country music fan, she still might have attended the festival. Vacationers go for the fun, regardless of usual preferences.
Now, the focus of the investigations is on what motivated Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old wealthy businessman to plan and execute the murder of many. Much is now known about his meticulous preparations for the operation, but little is known about his motivation.
It is known that he checked into the hotel three days before the shooting and turned his hotel room into an armoury of 23 guns and thousands of ammunition. It is known that for several years he had stockpiled weapons, buying on a particularly frenetic pace in the months leading up to the shooting. It is known also that he sent his live-in girlfriend to her native Philippines and wired her $100,000. And the investigations of motives continue, as they always do after every carnage.
There is also an investigation into how Paddock amassed so many weapons. And so far the evidence is that he acquired them all legally. The law of the land permits him to do so. Though it is illegal to own automatic rifles, the ones Paddock used are semi-automatic rifles that he legally converted into automatic rifles. Yes, on the one hand fully automatic rifles are illegal. On the other hand, they are legal.
Such inanity is possible only because of the fierce opposition to any attempt to regulate gun ownership. It took much legislative battle to pass a ban on fully automatic rifles, but opponents of the restriction extracted a claw-back clause that essentially negated the ban. Had Paddock used his semi-automatic rifles, he would have killed many people anyway, but probably not as many as he did with his converted fully automatic rifles, which discharge many more bullets per second.
Just like the national anthem and flag, guns have long attained a fetish status in American political culture. Opposition to sensible restrictions in ownership is typically not related to any practical necessity. It is based on a reverential obsession with a particular interpretation of a constitutional clause.
According to the Second Amendment to the U.S. constitution, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Exactly what the authors meant by “militia” is not clear. Adopted in 1791 as part of the bill of rights, the Second Amendment was relevant at a time of wide dispersion of the U.S. population; hence, the greater need for individual and communal self-protection.
In any case, it would seem that the operative phrase is “well-regulated.” Yet opponents of regulation cling only to the rather contradictory phrase “shall not be infringed.” It is not possible to regulate without infringing.
Yet it is the anti-regulation advocates that hold sway, led by the National Rifle Association. Though its power has waned somewhat, it is still a major force in electoral politics. It rates candidates on their commitment to the “rights” interpretation of the Second Amendment. And a low score is an electoral impediment, especially in the South.
In fact, candidates go out of their way to tout their high NRA ratings. Some even brandish guns at campaign rallies to buttress their pro-gun credentials. President Donald Trump does it, as does Roy Moore, a two-time chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who is now running for the U.S. Senate after being dismissed a second time from the state supreme court for defying U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
And so individuals are free to acquire as many guns and ammunition as they wish. As of Wednesday, 47 weapons belonging to Paddock had been recovered at three locations, including the hotel. Why an individual should be allowed to own that much firepower is something that even advocates of gun rights cannot plausibly explain beyond citing the “wisdom of the Founding Fathers.”
Whenever there is a massacre, such as in Las Vegas, there is much soul-searching and hand wringing. But no sooner has the sense of horror faded than the anti-gun control movement asserts itself. (Oh, I have written a column with the same title before). The success of the pro-gun advocacy in stymying logical checks on gun ownership demonstrates how polities get to embrace ideological commitments that are at odds with their own interests.
Three days after the massacre, NPR interviewed a Texas man whose daughter was seriously wounded at the Las Vegas shooting. He sounded very emotional at the thought that he could have lost his daughter. Yet, when asked whether the incident will soften his stance against gun control, he didn’t hesitate to say, “No.”
That political indoctrination can be so set on matters of gun control provides much insight into the intractability of global conflicts.
Minabere Ibelema is a Public Affairs Analyst.