Donald Trump knows how to change his mind and abandon old allies, and if ever there were a time when his mercurial nature might be a true blessing, then the worst mass shooting of his presidency is surely it. The horrifying massacre of at least 59 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas Sunday night exposed, once again, the inadequacy of America’s gun control laws and the urgent need to get high-powered weapons off the streets. During the campaign — and in his initial comments on Monday — Trump has shown only traditional Republican support for the National Rifle Association and its pro-gun absolutism. But the carnage in Nevada provides the president a chance for his proverbial Nixon-to-China moment, and all Americans should implore him to take it before more lives are lost.
The killer, Stephen Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nev., apparently took advantage of lax guns laws in assembling his arsenal. Tape from the scene showed that he fired as many as 10 shots every second, meaning he had either an automatic weapon or, more likely, a semi-automatic assault weapon modified to mimic an automatic weapon. Neither belong in civilian hands. From his perch in a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Paddock sprayed enough bullets to send more than 500 people to the hospital before he reportedly killed himself.
Paddock’s motive, if any, is unknown. Police say he has no connection to international terrorism — yet he certainly sowed terror. But what little is known about the murderer puts to rest the half-baked responses to gun violence Trump offered on the campaign trail last year. A ban on Muslims entering the United States — Trump’s suggested solution after the San Bernardino massacre — wouldn’t have prevented the carnage. Arming bystanders to fire back wouldn’t have helped either; there is no indication that anyone else was in the room with Paddock, who positioned himself about 400 yards away from his victims. While his father was a well-known bank robber, Paddock himself does not seem to have had any criminal record, meaning that even better enforcement of existing laws — so often the meek promise of elected Republicans after outbreaks of gun violence — probably wouldn’t have helped.
One safeguard would have stopped Paddock from killing so many people, so quickly, from so far away: an effective ban on assault weapons, including semi-automatic guns and the kits used to convert them to automatics. Such weapons have no legitimate self-defense or hunting use, but have repeatedly been used in mass shootings. Gun control won’t prevent all madmen, terrorists, or criminals from killing, but limiting the availability and firepower of weapons would at least reduce the death toll, and reduce the sense of terror gripping Americans.
Since entering electoral politics, Trump hasn’t supported gun control. To the contrary — and voters who embraced America’s gun culture as an answer to social and political anxieties have embraced Trump as their own. Gun policy should be treated as public safety issue, as it is in other countries, but America is uniquely vexed by cultural trends that have turned gun ownership itself into a political act — an assertion of identity by a white America despairing of its lost power and influence. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama noted how guns and nativist cultural attitudes so often go hand-in-hand: Americans who feel left behind “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Those same Americans also made Trump president — and just might give him the space to champion sensible gun legislation. He has as much political capital among aggrieved white voters as any president is ever likely to amass. Assembling a congressional majority for gun control would be a real accomplishment in an administration that so far lacks any.
Whether the president seizes the opportunity before him, of course, is a much different question. It would be naive to get high hopes. But massacres like Sunday night’s killings in Las Vegas don’t have to happen. Unless Trump wants to make many more painful visits like the trip planned for Wednesday to a grieving Las Vegas, he should take the lead on gun reform now.