Note: This is a belated publication of my reporting on the candlelight vigil held on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus on October 3, 2017, to honor the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting.
University of Nevada, Reno — It was a cold, gloomy Tuesday night in early October when hundreds of students and faculty here at the University of Nevada, Reno, convened at the Gateway Plaza in front of the Joe Crowley Student Union — some walked, some drove, some took the campus shuttle, but all eventually coalesced at the same spot. There was a reason why we were all there — a reason as weighty and compelling as it gets — but none of us wished to speak of it.
Less than 48 hours prior to that night, a heavily armed gunman — reportedly carrying “at least 20 rifles . . . along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including two rifles outfitted with scopes” — had checked into a high-floor hotel room at the Mandalay Bay casino on the Las Vegas Strip, set up his military-style assault rifles by the windows after shattering them, and callously opened fire on a crowd of approximately 22,000 people enjoying a Sunday night at a country-music concert nearby. To the shock and horror of most everybody, 59 people were left dead and nearly 550 others were wounded, many of them friends and family members of my fellow students here at U.N.R.
There was a striking paradox about our collective presence that night: we all wanted to be there — out of a sense of obligation but also of solidarity — and yet every one of us wished we did not have to. We wished there were no grieving souls among us; we wished there were no victims to commemorate; we wished there was no mass shooting to begin with; we wished there was no need for a candlelight vigil on our campus. Yet in the deafening silence of that bleak evening, we all stoop up, lit our candles, and weepingly confronted the grim reality that so conspicuously defied our wishes.
A month and a half have passed since that senseless act of mass murder that registered as the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, and many of us are still grappling with its magnitude and ramifications. Although we as a nation are shaken every time a troubled individual picks up a deadly weapon and murders innocent civilians, it is often not until it hits so close to home, until we can conceive of a plausible scenario where we could have been among the victims ourselves, that we begin to truly open our eyes to the scourge of gun violence in America. There are several ways in which we could have prevented or lowered the number of casualties inflicted by the attack on October 1, but the most effective way is inarguably to have kept those two dozen firearms out of the shooter’s hands. (I will leave the question of how we could have done that for another occasion.)
There are those among us that, for reasons of ideological purity or political expediency, advocate for essentially a laissez-faire approach to firearms on the part of the federal government. They argue that regulatory policies on guns are not the answer, that criminals will be criminals at the end of the day and acquire weapons by illegal means, that “guns do not kill people; people kill people.” I have long lost count of the number of times I have been presented with a variety of this argument, but I have never been more troubled by it than I was in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre.
What my friends on the other side of the aisle do not seem to realize is that crimes involving firearms vary in the degree of harm they visit upon their victims, and those degrees are indeed malleable to gun-control legislation, even if the crimes themselves are not. None of us are under the illusion that by regulating civilians’ access to guns we can keep firearms out of the wrong hands at all times, or perfectly foil every future mass shooting in America. In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, there is no question that the death and injury tolls would have been lower if the shooter did not have access to a bump stock, the attachment he used to make his semiautomatic rifles fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun.
As President Obama once observed in an interview with the Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Better is good.” One less death — even one less injury — would have been objectively better than what in fact transpired that night.
I will inevitably come under fire by my political opponents for devoting a portion of this essay to a discussion of gun policy, for “politicizing” a recent tragedy, as so many of us are frequently accused. I will happily plead guilty. I politicize the issue not to minimize the lives lost or score political points in this polarized climate, but to prevent a mass murder of this magnitude from occurring again. There never comes a “right” time to talk about the implications of a mass shooting for our gun laws, and the lives of our fellow citizens are too precious for us to equivocate on this area of national policy.
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