A Watershed Moment

Las Vegas should entirely change the way we think about preventing mass shootings.

FBI investigators continue to work at the site of the Las Vegas mass shooting Wednesday.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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.

That’s what happened in Las Vegas. The killer exploited two factors: range and speed. He targeted his victims from a distance of 400 to 500 yards, beyond normal hunting range and well beyond the effective range of police revolvers. He also fired rounds at machine-gun speed, killing or wounding hundreds of people before the cops could even figure out where he was. When you shoot that fast and from that far away, you’re unlikely to aim well, and your barrel will probably overheat. But when your target is a crowd of 20,000—and when you brought more than 20 guns and multiple high-capacity magazines with you, as this shooter did—you can just pick up the next gun, resume firing, and keep killing.

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.

Another talking point on the White House list says concealed weapons have sometimes “allowed people to protect themselves and stop a mass shooting.” This echoes the National Rifle Association’s line that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But that wasn’t true in Las Vegas. There were armed police at the concert, and some citizens reportedly grabbed shotguns from patrol cars to defend themselves. All of this was useless. The gunman was too high up, far away, and hidden to be effectively targeted by return fire. Anyone shooting back would probably have hit the wrong hotel room.

“The right to bear arms must be protected while maintaining public safety,” says the White House document. But you can’t maintain public safety when one person can mow down dozens of others in seconds. The previous time a sniper randomly shot multiple civilians from atop a building, 41 years ago in Kansas, it took police 11 minutes to get to him. In that time, using a standard rifle, the perpetrator killed three people and wounded eight. But the Vegas killer, using a bump stock, sprayed nine rounds per second. Firing in short bursts over the course of 10 minutes, he killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more. If he had kept firing, according to local officials, the death toll could easily have been in the hundreds.

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.

That doesn’t mean you have to ban guns. You can keep the pro-gun talking points. You just have to honor them by agreeing that when they’re violated—when firearms become too fast and powerful to reconcile with freedom, public safety, and good guys fighting back—gun laws can be used to restore those principles. No sensible advocate of the Second Amendment wants to live in a country where people can’t defend themselves or safely assemble.

We can’t stop guns from hitting people far away. (Not even banning them would accomplish that.) But we can limit the rate of fire. That starts with banning bump stocks, which inherently favor the indiscriminate shooter. And it doesn’t end there. Any modification that simulates fully automatic fire has to be restricted as tightly as we restrict machine guns. High-capacity magazines should be outlawed, too. Reformers and libertarians can debate where to draw the line, which is sometimes complicated, as we’ve seen in the case of semi-automatic weapons. But we should agree on a guiding principle: We won’t let guns become a means of destroying freedom and self-defense.

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.