In the wake of massacres like the Las Vegas mass shooting, many Americans reflexively demand gun control. The instinct is understandable. But that doesn't mean such initiatives will be effective beyond the margins.
So what should we do instead? How about focusing less on preemptively thwarting prospective attackers and instead boosting the defensive capacities of prospective victims.
There is no doubt that Stephen Paddock was a gun nut. Police found 23 firearms in his hotel room and 19 more in his home. Even more chilling, he converted his semi-automatic rifles that shoot only once when the trigger is pulled into something resembling automatic guns that shoot multiple times by using a bump stock—a device that uses the recoil energy of the gun to partially reload. (This contraption basically eviscerated the existing laws that make it exceedingly difficult and expensive for private citizens to buy automatic weapons.)
All of this is boosting calls for more stringent gun regulations, especially since Paddock, who had no history of mental illness or crime, would have cleared every background check. And even Republicans and the NRA are jumping on board with plans to at least ban bump stocks. No mass killer seems ever to have deployed this device before, but given the danger of copycats, banning their sale may make some difference at the margins. Or it may not. It's hard to predict.
But anyone who thinks that this—or similar measures—would significantly deter motivated shooters like Paddock, who meticulously planned his grisly attack, is fooling themselves.
There are about 300 million guns in this country—nearly one for every man, woman, and child. Congress can pass all the regulations it wants—and even declare an outright ban on guns. Anyone who wants a gun badly enough would still be able to get one. Substantially reducing America's stockpile of guns might make it more difficult for a potential killer to get a firearm undetected, but accomplishing that won't require a ban on guns, but a war on guns, whose constitutional implications are identical to those of the conservative war on terrorism. Indeed, it won't just require liberals to end their "truce with the Second Amendment"—as The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik wants—but also eviscerate other aspects of the Constitution.
There is no good or easy way to get Americans to voluntarily surrender their guns. Asking them nicely won't do the trick.
Liberals like to tout Australia's "buyback" programs as a possible model, but the success of that program in actually reducing the number of guns—and gun-related homicides—is deeply disputed. Indeed, one indication that the program wasn't all that it is cracked up to be is that illegal gun ownership in Australia is up again, necessitating yet another amnesty initiative by the country this year.
Besides, Australia's love affair with guns is nowhere as strong as America's—which is why Australia doesn't have the Second Amendment to begin with and America does. That, combined with the greater number of guns in this country, might make any buyback program prohibitively expensive for taxpayers.
So what is the alternative? Basically, forcing people to give up their guns. But the kind of intrusive searches of the homes and property of gun owners this would entail would make the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance of telecommunications look positively restrained. Nor are Americans likely to simply lie down and take it. They will likely resist and fight back, which would require the government to crack down even more—or, in other words, declare war on its own people.
No matter how much liberals want a gun-free paradise, they can't simply wish away a deeply entrenched gun culture. If they truly want to reduce the number of firearms, they need to be prepared to get draconian.
But would that even be worth it? I am highly skeptical that reducing the number of guns will actually result in fewer mass killings. Paddock took 59 lives—including his own. But look at the worst mass murders in modern American history: 9/11, in which thousands were killed by hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings; the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people with a homemade bomb and a truck. Meanwhile, the Nice attacker in France managed to kill 87 people—and injure 434—by simply mowing them down with his truck.
The grim lesson is this: There is nothing we can do to completely stop all killers at all times. The possibilities for mayhem are infinite. A society's means to stop them are finite. Psychotics and terrorists will always find ways to exploit the cracks. No government can create an entirely foolproof system.
So what can be done?
Employ modest firearm restrictions that can be enforced, sure. But also, encourage private entities to step up their own lines of defense. It is really quite amazing that Paddock could sneak in so much weaponry—and install security cameras in his room to monitor police activity outside—completely undetected by the Mandalay Bay.
As I have written previously, that kind of thing would never happen in my home country of India, where after the 2011 Mumbai attack, every hotel runs every car, every piece of luggage, and every handbag through a metal detector. Ditto for movie theaters and malls. Neighborhoods have installed their own private guards.
One reason Indians are taking security into their own hands is that their government is so inept that Indians have no illusions that it will protect them. But even where the government is more functional, it can't be omnipresent—and protect everyone from every single threat.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association declared after the Las Vegas shooting that it will re-evaluate the industry's security protocols. That's good. Other industries should follow suit.
The only way killers like Paddock—or Islamist terrorists, for that matter—have a prayer of being thwarted is if we fundamentally rethink our security strategy and build millions of points of resistance. Trying to go after their means (as liberals want to do) or targeting them by their motives (as conservatives want to do) won't cut it, no matter how good that sounds in theory.
This column originally appeared in The Week