In Las Vegas on Sunday night, life imitated the cartoon horror of a comics-hero movie.
A lone gunman, firing automatic weapons from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, killed 58 persons and wounded nearly 530 others who were gathered, like fish in a barrel, for an outdoor concert.
It’s the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. Given the state of the country under the Trump administration, who can say how long that record will stand?
If the National Rifle Association and its abettors have their way, one can only expect the scale of gun violence to increase. Already, as in past massacres, gun sales have spiked in the immediate aftermath of the carnage, driven by the fear of regulatory legislation that would limit access to weapons.
Fat chance, if history and the power of the NRA and its allies to control legislators as well as the public narrative are any guide.
Gov. Matt Bevin predictably summed up that narrative. “You can’t regulate evil,” he insisted.
No matter how preposterous an assertion which can bear no scrutiny of the actual record, as professor and researcher Frederick Lemieux effectively demonstrated in his op-ed in Tuesday’s Herald-Leader, this is the fatalism which undergirds political inertia. It has deterred any attempt to do something about the scandalous reality that the United States has experienced more mass killings over the last three decades than have 25 other wealthy nations combined.
What our governor and other spokespersons for the NRA’s ideology are saying by such a statement is simply a variant, for the gun industry, of what reactionary ideology holds about any regulation of business: It is an unjustifiable restraint of freedom. Leave the gun market alone, as any other market should be left, and all will work itself out. And if you have any doubts about the sufficiency of the market to make all things right, one can always, as the governor notes, pray.
This, of course, is the freedom of the Hobbsian world. In this dog-eat-dog terrain, it pays to be as armed as one can possibly be. This is the dystopia that the NRA and its ilk have promoted as the face of America. They have nurtured a paranoia that sees the other — minorities, foreigners, government — as the constant threat to freedom and security that only an armed citizenry can defend against.
Thus, the ideal of making every household a miniature militia, the modern Minute Men protecting our American heritage. That the pursuit of such an ideal is great for the gun industry is just a happy coincidence of unfettering the market.
The final defense of their absolute right to acquire whatever weapons they choose is a Constitutional one: the Second Amendment. They have great faith that a particular interpretation of that amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller, will stand forever.
No matter that that 5-4 decision went against the U.S. Supreme Court’s traditional reading of the amendment as one relating to “a well-regulated militia.” No matter that previous controversial court decisions have been overturned by the legislature as well as the court itself, such as Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson. No matter that Heller itself was no vindication of any absolute individual right to bear arms.
The Second Amendment crowd doesn’t really care about history, nor about the likelihood of some distant reversal of Heller, nor even about tedious particulars of a court decision. What they care about is a gun culture undisturbed by an overreaching government, whether in its legislative or executive branch. Let freedom reign, whatever the cost.
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.