PARTISANS IN GUN DEBATE GRAPPLE FOR COMMON GROUND AFTER LAS VEGAS SHOOTING
Once again, America faces an all-too-familiar narrative. A lone gunman, perhaps overcome by rage or insanity — or a toxic mixture of both — has murdered dozens of innocent people with the sort of rapid-firing weapons designed for military combat.
And once again, America also faces an all-too-familiar dilemma: What can be done to stop this bloodshed?
As word spread Monday of the scale of the mayhem in Las Vegas — at least 59 dead and more than 500 injured — you could almost hear a collective gasp of pain and frustration from both sides in the national debate over firearms. This sense of dashed expectations and loss was especially evident in New Jersey, which is home to some of America’s toughest gun laws but also some of the most powerful voices for and against gun control.
The Las Vegas shooting also served as a stark reminder that the nation is no closer to finding the political will to forge the kinds of legal and common-sense measures to prevent such shootings.
Almost five years after 20 first-grade students and six adults were shot to death in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and just 15 months after 49 patrons were gunned down in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, there is no indication that the nation has reached a tipping point that would bring about changes in laws to stop mass shootings, experts from both sides say.
Such is the sad reality of the mass murder in Las Vegas — which now sits atop the list of America’s deadliest mass shootings.
“Newtown wasn’t a tipping point? Orlando wasn’t a tipping point?” said Lisa O’Donoghue of Oradell, the leader of the Bergen County chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “I can’t believe we’re having this discussion.”
O’Donoghue’s frustration was common on Monday. But what was striking — and what may be a faint bright spot in the latest horrific nightmare — is that her sentiments were echoed by a smattering of gun rights proponents, too.
“We’ve had this discussion too many times,” said Anthony P. Colandro, a vocal proponent of gun rights who runs the Gun For Hire shooting range and instructional program in Woodland Park. “This kind of shooting is madness.”
“It always boils down to this: Nobody wants gun violence,” said Ed Gross of Westwood, chairman of the Bergen County chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“I don’t believe the average gun owner wants to be aligned with gun deaths,” Gross added. “But I think the common ground has to come from their side.”
But where exactly is the common ground in the gun debate? A persistent problem, both sides say, is that it is not clear what sorts of measures both sides could agree to that would provide a meaningful measure of safety.
Colandro suggested, for instance, that tougher mental health screening of gun buyers might help, along with continued monitoring to ensure that gun owners do not fall into mental disorders that require treatment and medication. Gross agreed.
But Colandro acknowledged that such measures are not enough and would likely run afoul of privacy laws. Gross agreed with that, too.
Gross pointed to another possible area of agreement: the development of so-called “smart” technology that would allow guns to be fired only by licensed owners.
But Gross was especially critical of gun rights proponents who refuse to budge from their point of view. “Gun owners have to stand up and say ‘enough,’ ” Gross said.
Whether the kinds of changes Colandro and Gross propose would have stopped the Las Vegas massacre is still a mystery.
The shooter, identified by police as Stephen Paddock, 64, a retired accountant who lived in a retirement community about 80 miles from Las Vegas, had no criminal record. Nor was he known to have threatened anyone or battled any sort of mental problems.
Nevertheless, police say Paddock managed to bring at least 10 guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition into his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino without anyone noticing. Then, without warning on Sunday night, Paddock broke a window in his room and began firing down at an outdoor country music festival featuring Jason Aldean and Jake Owen. Authorities said more than 22,000 fans were in the audience at the time.
Police said Paddock’s weapons all appeared to have been purchased legally. But on Monday, authorities were still investigating how Paddock managed to fire so many rounds so quickly.
Several videos recorded by concert patrons captured the rat-tat-tat-tat sounds of what seemed to be a machine gun. But it was not clear whether Paddock had managed to convert his semiautomatic rifles to fully automatic machine guns that can fire up to 700 rounds per minute, or whether he used a “trigger crank” or “gat crank” — a device that can be purchased legally for about $45 — to fire off rounds more rapidly.
Amid the sound of gunfire, police rushed to Paddock’s hotel room, reportedly drawn by the alarms set off by smoke from the number of rounds he had fired. Paddock shot himself to death before he could be captured, the Clark County sheriff said.
The tide of information — and the unanswered questions about Paddock himself — nevertheless pointed to a singular question: Could this sort of killing have been prevented?
Evan Nappen, an Eatontown attorney and gun rights proponent who has defended firearms owners in a number of high-profile cases, said a key question is whether Paddock broke any laws by converting his guns to machine guns.
Many semiautomatic rifles — the AR-15 and AK-47, for instance — can be converted by a skilled machinist, Nappen said. But that sort of conversion violates federal laws that ban the ownership of fully automatic firearms.
“If this guy was that illegal from the start, would any law make any difference?” Nappen said. What Paddock did, Nappen added, “comes down to an issue beyond the scope of any law.”
A shared pessimism
Many gun control advocates and their adversaries such as Nappen agreed that there is little chance that laws will be changed — certainly not enough to satisfy both sides.
Still, several controversial laws are now pending in Congress. One proposed federal statute would allow gun owners who had been licensed to carry concealed weapons in states like Nevada and Texas to bring them to New Jersey and other states that have rigorous restrictions against the carrying of guns in public. Another proposed federal law would loosen restrictions on the purchase of silencers, which muffle the sound of gunfire.
In a brief speech from the White House about the Las Vegas shooting, President Trump did not address any of these proposed laws, or suggest any other measures. Instead, he called for national unity and ordered flags on federal buildings to be lowered to half-staff. The White House also observed a moment of silence on Monday afternoon.
“In moments of tragedy and horror,” Trump said, “America comes together as one.”
Trump’s call for unity, however well-meaning, evoked disdain from some gun control advocates.
“I’m a big fan of prayers, but thoughts and prayers without action are insufficient and hollow,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, formerly of Mahwah, who helped to start the gun control group Do Not Stand Idly By.
“I don’t know what the body count has to be,” Mosbacher said. “What we are going to hear from most public officials is thoughts and prayers, and that’s not going to cut it.”
Mosbacher, now the rabbi of a New York City synagogue, became a vocal advocate for tougher gun control laws after his father was murdered in Chicago in 1992. In recent years, he has emerged as one of the leaders of the fledgling campaign by police departments — Jersey City’s among them — to demand safer guns from firearms manufacturers as part of lucrative contracts for police guns and ammunition.
But Mosbacher was quick to concede on Monday that such efforts by police departments would probably not have been enough to stop the Las Vegas killings.
“What it’s going to take is leaders who are willing to step up,” Mosbacher said. “I don’t want to see laws that are filled with so many holes. We just don’t want to see things that are symbolic.”
Mike Kelly for northjersey.com