The mass shooting in Las Vegas continues its hold on front pages and social media platforms, and the killer’s motives remain stubbornly unknown and mysterious. Since nature abhors a vacuum, and since this atrocity is tailor-made for the “do something!” anti-gun crowd, discussion and argument has focused on the tools of the atrocity.

We can criticize those who demanded more gun control even as first-responders were still treating victims, for leaping to their demands without knowing the first thing about what the shooter used or how/where he got his tools, but that’s yesterday’s argument. Today, we know substantially more (but not everything – it remains unclear whether Stephen Paddock (illegally) modified or had modified any of his guns to full-automatic).

This additional knowledge enables the beginnings of a conversation about changes to existing law. Whereas calls for more gun control in the immediate aftermath of the shooting were nothing more than an emotional and substance-free reaction, debate based on actual information is legitimate.

Given that the demand for changes to existing law is intended to stop future mass shootings, the debate should begin with the question:

What laws would have prevented Paddock from carrying out his plan?

The debate over gun rights in America is an on-going affair, and the proposals put forth by the restrictive crowd tend to vary over time. Today, these are the most common ideas:

  • Universal background checks.
  • An “assault weapon” ban.
  • Prohibitions on purchases by those with a history of mental illness.
  • Closing the gun show “loophole.”
  • Limit the number of guns an individual can own.
  • Limit the number of bullets an individual can own.
  • Limit magazine capacity.

There are many more, including the ban of all semi-automatic pistols and rifles, an outright ban on civilian ownership of guns, a near-ban that allows hunters to own hunting rifles, but store them at police stations until the season opens, doing away with concealed-carry rights, and on and on. Lets ignore these here, because they’re absolutely, positively not going to happen, and even if they did, all that would be accomplished is the instant assignment of felon status to tens of millions of Americans who’d done nothing wrong but who’d refuse to comply with such bans.

Lets, instead, contemplate the listed ideas, and whether any of them would have stopped Paddock or changed the outcome of his murder spree.

  • Paddock purchased his guns legally, and passed background checks (any purchase from a licensed dealer requires a background check). Calls for universal background checks are a non-sequitur, based on a desire to take advantage of the most recent event. Why they’re a terrible idea is discussed here.
  • Every assault weapon ban written or proposed, short of an outright ban on all semi-automatic rifles, leaves countless models that are functionally identical to those “assault weapons” legal. More on that here.
  • Paddock had no history of mental illness that could have flagged him as a risk, and besides, there are already such restrictions in place.
  • Paddock did not get his guns from a gun show, and in any case the “loophole” is a tendentious straw man.
  • Short of universal registration, how would the government limit the number of guns someone could own? The problems with universal registration are discussed here.
  • As with number of guns – how does one limit the number of bullets an individual can own? Bullets are a consumable resource, and one visit to a shooting range can consume dozens or even hundreds. Short of a draconian law that involved a national database, there’s really no way to enforce this. And, even with a law that limits purchases to, say, 50 rounds a month, straw buyers and time will allow any determined murderer (which Paddock obviously was – he spent a LONG time planning) to accumulate what he wants.
  • People who think smaller magazines would make a difference in mass shootings generally, in my experience, have no real experience with or knowledge of guns. More on that here.

In sum, none of the usual proposals would have stopped Paddock, and it’s questionable whether they’d have made the slightest bit of difference in the casualty toll.

This leaves one new proposal, one actually tailored to the incident itself: prohibition of bump stocks. Prior to the Las Vegas shooting, most people (myself included, and I’m fairly well-versed on the subject) didn’t even know such a thing existed (and, it seems, they’ve only existed since 2010, when they were green-lit by the ATF during Obama’s first term). Fact is, no one’s ever used one in a mass shooting before.

It’s arguable that Paddock’s casualty tally was enhanced by his presumed use of bump stocks (at this point, the early reports that some of his rifles were modified to full-automatic are unconfirmed, but it’s been confirmed that some of his rifles did have bump stocks). And, it’s arguable that a prohibition on bump stocks might seem a reasonable response to the shooting. Arguable, but not obvious: bump stocks reduce accuracy, and even shooting lots of bullets into a crowd from a distance doesn’t guarantee lethality.

Two additional counter-arguments immediately present themselves.

One – their use in this incident is unique. As I just noted, there’s no indication that any mass shooter in the past has used one. While the next mass murderer might say “aha! That’s something I can use!,” their absence would do nothing to deter.

Two – they’re just hunks of plastic, and there are already 3D-printed versions out there. A ban would not stop a determined murderer from getting one.

Despite all this, I do expect the “do something!” debate to coalesce around bump stocks, and I do expect some Republican congressmen to go along, because politicians are generally far more interested in optics than principles or results. Their ban won’t make a hill-of-beans difference the next time some asshole or maniac decides to do something horrific.

So, the question remains: “What laws would have stopped Paddock?” Ones that have a realistic chance of enactment, of course, and ones that have a realistic chance of actually working, as well. Remember – there are 350 million guns in this country, and tens of millions of Americans who won’t give them up even (and especially) if the government demands they do so. Remember, as well – tons of drugs are smuggled into America every day, and they are consumable, not durable. And, take note – in France, where gun control laws are strong and where there isn’t remotely the gun culture that America has, a fully-automatic AK-47 can be purchased on the black market for less than $2000, and Australia’s much-touted (by the Left) prohibition and buy-back program not only netted a mere 19% of the guns there, but created a large and violent black market. We know alcohol and drug prohibition doesn’t work, why would we think gun prohibition would?

I fully understand the horror, outrage, and anguish that drives the desire to “do something!” Emotion does not make for good law, and as Nick Gillespie at Reason pointed out, we should not conflate policy with therapy.

How do we stop the next mass shooter? I don’t know. I suspect there’s a societal illness, born out of tribalism and magnified by modern technology, at play, but I don’t know the remedy for that either. Having considered all the proposed solutions that involve more gun control, I feel confident in concluding that none of them will “work,” and that all they’ll do is, as Penn Jillette has lamented, “[take] rights away from good people.”

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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