“Nothing Divides Voters Like Owning a Gun,” read a New York Times headline last week. The story was full of facts that surprise no one. Donald Trump voters are gun owners. Non-gun-owning households voted for Hillary Clinton. Ditto for white voters who went for Trump and nonwhites who voted for Clinton. Same goes for rural versus urban, marrieds and unmarrieds, religious and notso-religious and union and nonunion voters.
Even with these deep divisions in our political and cultural lives, the massacre in Las Vegas may mark a moment of change. Fifteen years ago, writer and keen social observer Malcolm Gladwell published “The Tipping Point,” described by Amazon as “that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.” Whatever is tipped can be small and insignificant, like Pet Rocks in the ’70s and the more recent acceptance of tattoos as “body art,” or profoundly meaningful and life-changing, like the distrust of government in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam conflict and the complete reversal of social acceptance of smoking.
At some point, something unknown becomes highly desirable, something that was unquestioned becomes suspicious or something once acceptable is no longer.
If we are lucky, or in religious terms, “blessed,” Las Vegas’ mass murders will become the tipping point that makes reasonable gun control measures as acceptable in the United States as they are in the rest of the developed world.
I know. I know. After each of our numerous mass shootings, we say this is it — this is the one that will make us focus on the link between lax gun regulation and shooting deaths.
Remember the murders of kindergarteners, firstgraders and their teachers at Sandy Hook? Who could have imagined that nothing would change after that atrocity committed by a person with both mental disorders and firearms?
Mass shootings, shocking as they are at the time, have settled into a macabre American routine. We learn of an “active shooter.” We expect a “self-inflicted gunshot” or “death by police.” When it is over, news organizations interview survivors and families of those who did not make it, lovingly profile victims, and try not to say much about the shooter lest he — and I cannot remember any shes — becomes a model and inspiration for other disturbed wannabes.
The Las Vegas shootings seem to have taken us to a new level.
A shooter with automatic weapons 32 stories above a concert venue mowed down 58 of his fellow human beings. So stunning was this new kind of attack that even the National Rifle Association says the availability of “bump stocks” — the gun accessories that turn semi-automatic weapons into automatics — should be re-evaluated. The NRA’s openness to at least discussing regulation of these devices marks a change in its usual opposition to any and every gun control measure. The NRA’s campaign contribution tentacles are deeply entwined in our Republican Congress and Republican legislatures throughout the nation, rendering gun control efforts dead on arrival even after the Sandy Hook murders. As U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told MSNBC bluntly last week, “The gun lobby is much stronger now than the anti-gun-violence movement.”
Cynics are already suggesting that the NRA’s new receptiveness regarding bump stocks is merely a ploy to stall and derail broader gun control measures. Bump stocks, after all, are hardly household items, even in a nation that has more guns than people. Also, polls find that some gun owners are open to a federal database of gun sales and additional restrictions on assault weapons. The NRA may be willing to give a little on bump stocks to head off attacks on issues it holds dearer.
Whatever the motivation, the NRA’s openness on even this small issue indicates that America and American politicians may be ready for our long overdue conversation about guns and gun violence in our nation. We do ourselves no favors by pretending gun violence is not an issue, and we certainly do not honor its victims by avoiding the conversation.
In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell gives numerous examples of how tiny social trickles become roaring waterfalls. The United States has endured increasing numbers of mass shootings as well as countless other incidents of gun violence. It will take courage to confront this volatile and painful scourge.
Let’s hope that some good can come from the Las Vegas massacre by finally initiating our national discussion.