Sunday, October 8, 2017

What 9/11 can teach us about preventing mass shootings. But will we learn?

William Saletan, writing at, marks the Las Vegas shooting as A Watershed Moment. Las Vegas should entirely change the way we think about preventing mass shootings.

In 2004, a blue-ribbon commission issued its report on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many lapses had allowed the plot to succeed, the report concluded, but the central failure was a lack of imagination. Before 9/11, the FBI, the military, and the Federal Aviation Administration had considered lots of terrorism scenarios, including hijackings, suicide missions, and attacks using foreign planes. But no one had put it all together. No one had imagined that terrorists would hijack commercial planes inside the United States and use them to strike buildings.

This week’s massacre in Las Vegas is another watershed moment. The toll, 58 killed and nearly 500 wounded, is far less than 9/11. But it’s the worst mass murder committed with a firearm in this country. In bursts that took only seconds—at no risk to himself, and in defiance of security precautions that were taken at the targeted concert venue hundreds of yards away—one person was able to shoot hundreds of others, thanks to a combination of distance, elevation, rapid-fire technology, and target density. We haven’t seen this combination before. But we will see it again, unless we study our mistakes, as we did after 9/11. That attack changed the way we think about planes. This attack should change the way we think about guns, whether you’re generally for or against them.

The first step is to understand that guns shouldn’t all be treated the same way. They can be made more or less dangerous. Add a high-capacity magazine, and you can fire continuously. Add a bump stock or trigger crank, and you can squeeze off rounds more quickly. Add armor-piercing ammunition, and you can take on a SWAT team. At some point in this process of escalation, you’re no longer holding a device for hunting, recreation, or self-defense. You’re holding a weapon of mass destruction.

This kind of attack foils the usual arguments against gun laws. Look, for example, at the pro-gun talking points put out by the White House after the attack. One item on the list says it’s unfair to single out firearms, since “we’ve seen terrorist attacks committed with knives, by people driving cars into crowds, and hijacking airplanes.” But all of those methods require the perpetrator to get close to his victims, which gives them a fighting chance. The victims in Las Vegas had no chance. Also, cars need to be fast, and knives need to be sharp, in order to do their jobs. Guns don’t need to fire as rapidly as the one in Las Vegas did, unless you’re trying to kill people indiscriminately.

Saletan similarly dismantles the rest of the White House’s (and NRA’s) talking points. For example:

The Second Amendment “is a key constitutional right that is meant to protect people’s freedoms,” says the White House. But attacks of this magnitude challenge freedom one way or another. Look at aerial photos of the Las Vegas concert grounds. At least four hotels are within similar range of the venue. Together, they have more than 11,000 rooms. To prevent an attack like this one, you’d have to put scanners and luggage searches at every hotel entrance. Every building within a quarter-mile of an outdoor gathering place, in every city, would have to be tightened like an airport. Or you’d have to bar people from gathering outdoors near such buildings. That’s a lot of freedom to give up. At some point, the path of greater liberty is to limit the power of firearms instead.

The 9/11 model suggests other measures. In retrospect, the 9/11 commission observed, the key to that plot’s success was training suicide operatives to fly big jets. Nobody was monitoring flight schools. Now we monitor them. Something like that could be done for guns. If you buy an arsenal like what the Vegas killer bought before his attack—12 bump stocks, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and 33 firearms in the course of a year—somebody should know about it. When a person with that kind of purchase record reserves a room overlooking a crowd of 20,000, law enforcement should be alerted.

What happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas. Bump stocks are already selling off the shelves. “The world has changed,” Las Vegas Sheriff Joseph Lombardo lamented at a press conference this week, as he marveled at the audacity of the attack. “Who would have ever imagined this situation?” That’s what we said after 9/11. But we changed to meet that challenge. We can meet this one, too.

I might add: banning the devices that make guns into weapons of mass destruction does not threaten folks like my father who had rifles for hunting elk in and shotguns for hunting pheasants. Neither would such measures threaten home owners’ possession of hand guns. But enforcement of such bans would have greatly reduced the loss of life in the Las Vegas shootings and, I further add, would have limited the carnage at a Safeway store in 2011.

But stay tuned to the arguments from the gun lobby. In the main they will argue that restricting any gun is a threat to owners of all guns. If you don’t believe that, I suggest you read the letters to the editor in this (Sunday) morning’s GV News, for example, this one. This guy totally misses two points: we cannot continue to accept the loss of life as the price of the second amendment, and banning weapons of mass destruction (never envisioned by the authors of that amendment) would not affect most gun owners at all.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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