Stephen Paddock Bought 33 Guns in 12 Months. That Should Be Illegal.
How much lethal firepower should citizens be allowed to possess?
By George Zornick
On October 1, there were 16,000 American soldiers serving in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But it was Las Vegas that most resembled a war zone and represented the biggest danger to American lives that day. From the punched-out windows of his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel, Stephen Paddock rained down an appalling level of destruction on a country-music concert below. Using an enormous cache of guns, in less than 12 minutes he massacred 58 people and injured 527 more. It was a deadlier day than American soldiers have ever suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the worst mass shooting in modern US history.
This latest slaughter demands that the country grapple with gun-control issues beyond the debate over background checks. A more fundamental question is at hand: How much lethal firepower should citizens be allowed to possess?
There will be a fierce debate about where to draw the line, but no reasonable person can say the Vegas shooter wasn’t well past it. Paddock had effectively assembled a small ordnance depot in his luxury hotel suite. He had at least 23 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. A majority of those guns were military-style assault weapons; some were mounted on shooting platforms with scopes and tripods and outfitted with devices that made them fully automatic. Investigators later found 19 more guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition at his home.
The destructive capacity of this arsenal is staggering, but it is not out of line with the firepower unleashed by other mass shooters. Omar Mateen, who was responsible for the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, had three weapons, including an assault rifle, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He killed 49 people and wounded 68 more. Adam Lanza had only 300 seconds to shoot his assault rifle inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown before the police engaged him, but he got off 154 rounds and killed 26 people. James Holmes shot 82 people inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 90 seconds. When Jared Loughner shot up a meet-and-greet with then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson, he fired 33 times in 19 seconds.
Assault weapons with large magazines for ammunition are the common denominator in these killings. After World War II, the US Army’s Operations Research Office performed a study and found that the chief predictor of casualties was the number of shots fired. The military then asked the private sector to develop a lightweight weapon with a large, detachable magazine that could be used to inflict extreme damage on the enemy. The firearms manufacturer ArmaLite answered the call with the AR-15, which became the military’s standard-issue rifle.
Now weapons very similar to the AR-15 are sold by sporting-goods stores, gun shops, and online retailers nationwide to any citizen with any level of training, or none at all. Large magazines that carry up to 100 rounds are also legal, and ammunition sales are barely regulated. The devices that Paddock used to make his weapons fully automatic are legal as well. Remarkably, Republicans in Congress plan to make lethal weapons even more dangerous: The House may soon vote on a bill making it much easier for citizens to obtain silencers and armor-piercing ammunition.
Such measures must be blocked, but the gun-control movement also needs to push for action on reducing the number and kinds of weapons that Americans can possess. Creating a nationwide registry of gun owners and their firearms would be a start, along with enacting federal laws that prohibit more than one handgun purchase per month. Three percent of Americans already own 50 percent of the guns and can let loose military-level assaults on any venue they choose: concerts, malls, elementary schools. Background checks wouldn’t have stopped Paddock, Mateen, Lanza, Holmes, or Loughner. All those guns were purchased legally. But why were they allowed to be sold?
George Zornick is The Nation’s Washington editor.
The Term ‘Terrorism’ Is a State Weapon
We don’t fight racist double standards by labeling the Las Vegas attacker a terrorist.
By Natasha Lennard
Following Stephen Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas on Sunday night, there was, apparently, too little talk of terrorism. So little, in fact, that #terrorism trended nationwide on Twitter and most major news outlets published something exploring the nature and definition of the word. Within a day, rivers of digital ink had been spilled on the absence of the “terror” term in official and media descriptions of the attack and the white male attacker.
It was an understandable, well-intentioned scramble to correct a racist double standard: Muslim killers are presumed terrorists, and white killers are accorded the benefit of lone-wolf status. Before the full body count was tallied, when next to nothing was known about 64-year-old gunman, the local Clark County Sheriff told press that he was not treating the shooting as a terrorist event: “No, not at this point,” he said. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed that “it would be premature to weigh in” on the terror question. It’s fair to guess that no such restraint and patience would have been applied had the killer been Muslim.
But the debate has fallen across a limited fulcrum wherein our options seem to be either maintaining a racist application of the terror label or demanding a broader application, which names white terror with equal readiness. The possibility of rejecting the terrorism label tout court is left off the table. This is a problem. The application of “terrorism” to white violence is not wrong, but it’s not useful, because the term “terrorism” is almost never useful—except, of course, if you’re the state.
There is no neutral application of “terrorism” available such that all cases of violent crime with political or social objectives receive the label. Many ideology-drenched criminal acts that coerce and terrorize civilian populations don’t get deemed terrorism. If we wanted to truly equalize the term’s application, the violent targeting and caging of young black men by police would constitute a persistent terrorist threat. But we know, of course, that the state is exempt from the label, because the label is a state weapon. This is inherent to the meaning of terrorism in the United States, which has nothing to do with the presence of political objectives motivating a violent act per se, but everything to do with the state’s singling out its ideological enemies. By naming and reifying an enemy, the state has grounds to ramp up policing, surveillance, and other aspects of a repressive apparatus. “Counterterrorism” has been the framework of the last 16 years through which the US government has excused a whole manner of bellicose and oppressive acts.
“I’d like to hear more about how calling it terrorism ends up making us safer? Will it lead to weapons ban or just more aggressive policing?” asked Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, in response to a tweet that stated, “#stephenpaddock is a terrorist.” Vitale, when met with predictable and reasonable replies about racist double standards, replied, “do we really want to feed the ‘terrorism’ machine? Esp[ecially] with Trump.” Vitale makes a good point: The interpellation of “terrorist” has a fierce history of promoting a repressive and military state apparatus, not justice.
By labeling the terrorist, the state reveals its self-perceptions and narratives about who counts as a citizen and who a threat. This is an especially American fact, since “terror” has been designated the official state enemy. If there is anger that Donald Trump called the Vegas shooting “pure evil” but avoided the terror term (unlike with every knee-jerk tweet when the suspect has been Muslim), it is because in the American imaginary “terrorism” has come to mean something worse than “pure evil.” After horrors like Vegas, there’s a collective desire to label something “the worst.” But it’s a trick of state logic and protracted, formless war that we’ve come to conflate “terrorism” with “the worst.” If we believe “the worst” is synonymous with that which the state names its enemy, this suits a government seeking to expand its social control.
The state’s enemies shift: In 2005, the FBI named so-called eco-terrorists “the nation’s top domestic terrorism threat,” despite the fact that since the introduction of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, no single animal or human has been physically injured by eco-activists. The terror, according to state determinations, resided in property damage. Long before the War on Terror, terror designations fueled mass surveillance, militarization, entrapment, and victimization of vulnerable communities as well as those who would challenge state and corporate power. Under the guise of counterterrorism, the Black Panther Party was systematically destroyed by the FBI, its leaders murdered and its legacy in the civil-rights struggle besmirched. Since 9/11, presumed terror has been Muslim, and Muslim lives have been surveilled, persecuted, and extrajudicially punished.
It’s understandable, then, that we would want the state to name and demonize terror perpetrated by a white man just as readily as it would any nonwhite presumed terrorist. If murderous racist acts deserving of the worst condemnation, like Dylann Roof’s massacre in Charleston, are not named terrorism, it’s because they are not terrorism. By which I mean, they are not considered a threat to America’s deep-rooted sensibilities, and they are not. This country is undergirded by white supremacy and white violence. This is a devastating historic problem, but not one solved by asking the state to name its own ideology as the enemy. To follow this approach to its logical conclusion, we would have to demand the state call itself a terrorist organization—perhaps a fair designation, but one which makes no sense, since it is the state that maintains the monopoly on who counts as its enemy. And this is the problem of invoking the terror label; it is an appeal to a state logic that needs challenging, not emboldening.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, head of BBC Arabic Tarik Kafala said that the term “terrorist” should not be used to describe the gunmen. He explained that is “enough” to describe what happened in the attack, “we know what that means, we know what it is,” he said. In Las Vegas, one white man pointed a military-grade weapon at a crowd of thousands, exterminated 59, and injured hundreds. We need not call him a “lone wolf”—a term just as loaded as “terrorist” in its implication that attacks and attackers are isolated and anomalous. No descriptions or explanations of events like the Vegas massacre can nor should be free of politicization—that’s fine. But let’s seek specificity, context, and a language that speaks to the material conditions under which such nightmares become reality. A state rhetoric that would divide the world up into “us” and “them” will not serve and will never be applied justly.
Natasha Lennard is a British-born, Brooklyn-based writer of news and political analysis, focusing on how power functions and how it is challenged.
The Spanish Government Just Energized Catalonia’s Independence Movement
The image of black-visored riot police clubbing peaceful citizens will long haunt Catalonia’s collective memory.
By Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín
In Spain, the day before a vote is generally reserved for reflection: no campaign ads, speeches, or rallies. But on Saturday, September 30, the night before the Catalan independence referendum, thousands of people in Barcelona not only reflected but made a political decision: They descended on elementary schools, civic centers, and other polling stations to ensure that they’d be open on the morning of the referendum. Four days earlier, Catalonia’s High Court—whose members are appointed in Madrid—had ordered police to prevent the stations from opening and to confiscate voting materials. Spain’s Constitution doesn’t allow for secession, and so the Constitutional Court had suspended the referendum on September 7.
On the morning of Sunday, October 1, the Interior Ministry deployed over 10,000 police officers brought in from the rest of Spain. Social media soon delivered an unending stream of videos and images showing police attacking voters and violently removing ballot boxes. At the Ramon Llull school in Barcelona, for example, riot police used rubber bullets and a human blockade to prevent people from entering the building. Inside, masked officers ripped ballot boxes away from citizens, who chanted: “Votarem! Votarem!” (“We will vote! We will vote!”) By day’s end, the Catalan Department of Health reported that nearly 900 people had been injured, with four hospitalizations.
The intense violence from police, who shut down only 313 of the 2,200 polling stations, didn’t dissuade the public. According to the Catalan government, more than 2.2 million of 5.3 million registered voters cast ballots, with 90.9 percent voting Sí and 8 percent No for an independent Catalan republic. The Catalan Parliament had adopted a law on September 6 calling for a declaration of independence within 48 hours of the official results if the Sí vote won. Yet Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has been sending mixed signals. On Monday he said that he would seek negotiations with Madrid: “The Catalan government has not decided to declare independence but has rather understood that it’s the moment to appeal to [international] mediation and, if it happens, to discuss everything,” he said. His statement came right after the European Union refused to get involved, maintaining that “this is an internal matter for Spain.” But on Tuesday, Puigdemont said in an interview on BBC that independence would be declared within days.
Even as police were beating voters, the country’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, declared victory. “There has not been a referendum or the appearance of one,” she said on Sunday. “It never made sense to go down this path of irrationality.” That evening, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered his “special thanks…to the security forces, the National Police, and the Civil Guard,” with no mention of the violence. When King Philip VI addressed the country on October 3, calling Barcelona’s actions “an inadmissible disloyalty” and making “an appeal for understanding and harmony,” he too ignored the elephant in the room.
Many Spanish politicians condemned Madrid’s heavy-handed crackdown. “Today is a sad day for our democracy,” Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez tweeted. Rajoy’s “repressive strategy has failed,” wrote Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, and only served to push the deterioration of Spanish “democracy and coexistence to unprecedented limits.” But the response that echoed most widely came from Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau: She demanded the removal of police and called Rajoy a “coward,” denouncing the lack of dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments. “The Rajoy government has insisted on turning to the courts, hiding behind judges and public prosecutors to avoid its responsibility, which is to act politically. Today it has gone a step further and crossed all the red lines,” she said, adding: “Rajoy must resign.”
Among the political parties pushing for independence is Puigdemont’s conservative Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat). According to journalist Guillem Martínez, PDeCat’s endgame has always been a more beneficial autonomy rather than independence. Puigdemont’s call for dialogue appears to confirm such an interpretation, but his closest allies in this struggle, the Republican Catalan Left and the Popular Unity Candidacy, are unlikely to settle for anything less than independence. Meanwhile, on October 2, throngs of young Catalans took to the streets to protest the continued presence of Spanish police. The next day, tens of thousands participated in a general strike, which engulfed every sector of Catalan society, including the soccer team F.C. Barcelona, and blocked more than 50 roads.
Prime Minister Rajoy’s zero-tolerance approach may have strengthened his support among conservative Spaniards who reject Catalonia’s aspirations, but the repression has hurt Spain’s image abroad and deeply—perhaps definitively—alienated a growing majority of Catalans. According to polls before the referendum, close to 50 percent of the 7.5 million Catalans favored independence, but more than 80 percent claimed the right to self-determination, which Spain’s Constitution denies them. After the violence on October 1, those numbers may be significantly higher.
The image of black-visored riot police clubbing peaceful citizens will long haunt Catalonia’s collective memory, while the triumph of the vote against all odds will shape the political consciousness of generations of Catalans to come. Spain is now suffering its worst constitutional crisis since the attempted military coup of 1981. Constitutional reform may be the only option to maintain a unified state—which both Podemos and the Socialist Party endorse. But only Podemos supports giving Spain’s regions the right to conduct referendums on self-determination. The 1981 coup lasted mere hours; at present, the “Catalan question” has no end in sight.
Sebastiaan Faber is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College (Ohio).
Bécquer Seguín is an assistant professor of Iberian studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Is the Republican Party a Threat to the Constitution?
Only the GOP can save (or destroy) democracy in America.
By Aziz Huq
What does it mean to be against the Constitution? American history has no precise analogy to the early-20th-century fascists who ran against the nascent democracies of the inter-war years. Indeed, if there is an American who unequivocally styled himself as anti-constitution, it would be the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who declared the document that enshrined slavery a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell.” Lacking a long tradition of anti-constitutional politics, Americans might be forgiven for thinking it was not a real possibility.
But in the United States, there is a budding political movement that sets itself against a basic constitutional principle. This movement has a highly salient national leader, a coterie of intellectuals, and a deep reservoir of latent support, waiting to be tapped. Even if its current avatar flames out, it will endure—pressing its core objection to a fundamental tenet of the Constitution: democracy.
The Constitution, from its very inception, has envisaged an elected, representative government, one that is subject to removal at the polls. A democratic architecture arcs through most of its first two articles. Various amendments extend the franchise across race, gender, wealth, and age boundaries. In practice, moreover, the United States has hewed to the Constitution’s timetable for democratic elections for more than two centuries. No other country can say as much.
This is hardly to say that our democracy today—with its massive and racially lopsided franchise, exorbitant spending, and two-party duopoly—is anywhere near ideal. It is rather that the aspiration of democracy, if realized with lapses and blind spots, is laced into the Constitution’s bones.
Anti-Constitution politics is an opposition to democracy as both practice and ideal. This is different from being against effective campaign-finance reform or for spurious voter-fraud measures. Elite dominance of national politics long precedes PACs and dark money. And the poor and people of color have been excluded from polling stations as long as ballots have been in the United States. However pernicious, these are retail assaults on constitutional democracy—all serious, but nonfatal to the enterprise as a whole. A full-scale version of the same attack requires more. If the movement accepts elections, it does so only if they serve as rituals to sanctify what is already known to be the true voice of the people.
The Trump White House is, obviously, the polluting, pullulating engine of contemporary anti-constitutional postures. I speak not here of its casual disregard for ethics laws and rules, its contempt for the Equal Protection Clause, or the outright hostility to the speech rights of those who won’t stand for the national anthem. Rather, the most revealing moment of the Trump doctrine, to my mind, is the candidate’s never-materialized threat to reject the election results if Clinton won. It was a refrain filled with disdain not just for the Democratic candidate but for the system of democratic choice.
Much as he would like to think otherwise, Trump is nothing new in this regard. He is what Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller calls a populist: Someone who claims to vocalize the sole, authentic voice of the people, and someone who characterizes all dissent as the canker of a traitorous elite. Trump stands only as the latest strain in a familiar democratic metastasis.
Yet earlier iterations of populism have not prevailed simply by the sheer momentum of a leader’s charisma. Rather, they have burst democracy’s bounds because an entire political movement—a faction or a party—has repudiated the logic and legitimacy of democratic competition. The lesson of populism elsewhere in the world is that it is necessary to look closely not just at the actions of a putative leader but also at the social and political formation at his back. In other words, Trump alone is not enough. To threaten democracy, he requires a friendly party in the House and Senate—one that would remove constraints on the White House by terminating oversight, undermining independent institutions, and attacking critics while at the same time stacking the federal judiciary with fellow travelers aligned personally and ideologically with the president.
This is not (yet) the mainstream Republican Party. But this basic dynamic is clear elsewhere. Hungary, Poland, and Turkey all present ongoing examples of anti-democratic parties that have captured state power, and used it to squeeze out any political competition. The Fidesz Party in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) Party in Poland ran nationalist election campaigns courting conservative (especially Catholic) voters and intelligentsia. In Turkey, the AK Party’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has skillfully courted an emerging middle class of conservative religious voters who felt maligned and disrespected by Kemalist liberal and secular elites. (The role of organized religion in buttressing anti-democratic politics has a fascinating parallel in the United States, where evangelical voters have proved a robust strut of Trump’s popular support.)
Having won narrow victories in national polls, both Fidesz and the PiS eliminated judicial checks and turned the bureaucracy into an instrument of state power. Public-service broadcasting in both countries has been twisted into narrowly partisan tools. In Hungary, the electoral system has been changed to sap the opposition’s ability to win a new majority. The Fidesz government has also moved with its regulatory powers to shutter opposition broadcasters and hostile elements of civil society, such as Central European University. In Turkey, the government forced unfriendly newspapers close, and sidelined its critics with charges of sedition (which, to be fair, were not always unfounded).
In all of these cases, it was a broad political movement with substantial support in religious and conservative civil society—and not just a single leader or clique—that has been instrumental in suppressing democracy. In each case, the party has run against not just another party but the constitutional system as a whole; political scientists thus label them anti-system movements. And when in power, they move quickly to dismantle key elements of that system.
It is not partisan gamesmanship to ask whether the Republican Party, despite its rhetoric, can be characterized as an anti-system, anti-Constitution party. The GOP controls the White House, both chambers of the national legislature, and more than 60 percent of statehouses. It has also appointed a majority of justices on the Supreme Court.
There is evidence in the public statements of politicians, intellectual ferment, and raw polling data that an anti-Constitution position is emerging. It is too early, I think, to say it has consolidated into a movement committed to maintaining power by eliminating meaningful political competition. But the recent Republican efforts in North Carolina to racially gerrymander and legislatively eliminate gubernatorial power after losing that office give us a taste of what such a campaign might look like.
Consider first the strategic decisions of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell since he declared in 2010 that the Republican Party’s “single most important” priority was making Barack Obama a one-term president. Since then, he has led congressional Republicans twice in exploiting the statutory debt ceiling to threaten national default as a way of extorting policy concessions. He then subtly reworked the xenophobic tropes of the “birther” movement into a more neutral seeming ground for impugning and denying Obama’s legitimate authority as president to appoint a Supreme Court justice. Finally, there is his evisceration of the Senate filibuster for high court nominations, and the extravagant use of reconciliation to enact substantive legislation without hearings, debate, or any opposition input. All this is consistent with a party willing to dispense with the ordinary to-and-fro of democratic politics—and go for broke.
If McConnell’s tactics can be glossed as mere instances of hardball within the Constitution’s framework, the intellectual movement on the hard right of the Republican Party is harder to square with constitutional fidelity. The seminal text of the moment here is perhaps Michael Anton’s concededly “histrionic” white-nationalist manifesto “The Flight 93 Election,” which described a Clinton victory as “Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” The clear implication—that democracy is suicide if the other side wins—has been taken up even more explicitly by Pat Buchanan, the former Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon adviser, who twice ran for the Republican presidential ticket. In an essay titled “Is Democracy in a Death Spiral?,” Buchanan muses on whether democracy should be tossed aside. “If democracy doesn’t deliver,” he wonders aloud, “dispense with it.”
Across potentially influential intellectual figures on the hard right, then, we can find a growing skepticism of democracy. The implication that one might forgo democracy—rather than committing what Anton and Buchanan characterize as a form of cultural suicide—hovers like a specter in the wings, awaiting its final cue.
Many ideas, of course, circulate. Not all take root. But on the political right, there is a growing mistrust of democracy. In an August 2017 poll, more than half of Republican-leaning respondents said they would support efforts to postpone the 2020 election if Trump said it was necessary to ensure that only eligible voters could participate. It is worth wondering what the result of such a poll would be if the question were instead whether to hold an election in the shadow of an expected war or terrorist attack.
The annual World Values Survey provides yet more evidence that anti-Constitution arguments may yield increasing returns today. This survey, deployed with the same questions since 1981, provides a window into changing public attitudes. During the past three decades, it shows the proportion of US citizens who say they believe it would be a “good” or a “very good” thing for the “army to rule” has spiked from one in 16 to one in six. Among the cohort of “rich young Americans,” the proportion of those who look favorably on military rule is more than one in three. Couple this hostility to democracy alongside a worrying lack of public knowledge of what the Constitution says, the public foundations for democracy start to look increasingly shaky.
It is, in short, a mistake to think of the threat that Trump poses to American constitutional democracy in isolation. The risk is mainly a function of how a larger and yet still inchoate intellectual and political movement within the Republican Party develops. Although Trump himself primes the pump through his courting of a resentful strain of vengeful and retrograde nationalism, its dynamics also flow through the actions of the Republican Party more generally.
For better or worse, progressives have little or no immediate influence over these forces. But they cannot ignore them—lest their efforts to rebuild a political platform, reinvigorate communities that didn’t turn out in 2016, and peel away voters who defected from Obama to Trump end up for nothing. Rather, we must attend not only to what is happening in the Oval Office and the president’s Twitter feed, but on the broader currents of regressions within the Republican Party.
Aziz Huq teaches at the University of Chicago; his book How Constitutional Democracies are Lost (and Saved) will be published in 2018.
Information was provided by The Nation.