Dear America: a letter from Las Vegas

Dear America,

I am writing to you today with a heavy heart and a conflicted mind.  As you know, last weekend, we were rocked by an unimaginable tragedy that has affected all of our two million citizens.  Most people don't realize there are two million of us.

Here's a map for context:

(Source: NASA image, circa 2010)

To orient you, the red areas are parks and golf courses; the grey areas are buildings; the brown is undeveloped desert.  In total, the metro area covers about 600 square miles.  It is massive.  However, most people don't think of much beyond the casinos and the Las Vegas Strip - which, for reference is that darker grey swath that cuts kind of diagonally through the lower center, with the airport slightly to its east. 

For the past week, all of us have been trying to grapple with the idea of someone - for whatever reason - opening fire on a crowd of innocent people, as if it was the opening scene of the latest Hollywood action film pitting a hero against some monstrous villain with a plot to take over the city.  Except this wasn't a movie.

I won't get into the horrors that crowd of people experienced.  The news covered that pretty well.  Needless to say, it will fuel nightmares for decades.

Innocent people died.  

Hundreds more were shot.

Countless more were injured.

One thing the news did a bad job of pointing out -- hundreds, if not thousands of people suffered minor injuries of some sort - scrapes, sprains, cuts, bruises.  But they ran away to safety and dealt with those injuries on their own.  Hospitals were at capacity and literally turned people away.  They rerouted those with major injuries to other facilities, but those with minor injuries just left.

Not a single person in this city does not know someone that died, was injured, was present during the shooting, or has some other relationship to this tragedy.  Every day, we continue to mourn those we have lost.  And in a greater sense, we mourn the loss of the city we knew.  

The city is still here.  #VegasStrong is a trending hashtag - so it must be true.

After just a few days, the roads were reopened around the venue and people started going back to the area.  The infamous Las Vegas sign - typically a kitschy spot for tourists to kiss and take photos to remember their adventures, has turned into a memorial site.

I support the memorial.  But, now that it has been placed, people have begun to wash their hands of the tragedy and the underlying problems that created the climate that allowed it to happen.

There was a gun show in Las Vegas this weekend.

I read this article this morning that perfectly encapsulates the media cycle surrounding mass shootings and tragedies in general.  Basically, it comes down to this:

1.  Terrible thing happens

2.  Media attention, "thoughts and prayers," and immediate support for the affected community

3.  Outrage and a call to action on one side, simultaneously with another side arguing that "nothing could have stopped this tragedy."

4.  General sadness and attempts to fix superficial problems (in this case: hotel security), and conspiracy theories

5.  Terrible thing falls out of the media cycle - often because another terrible thing has happened.

Believe it or not, we are already somewhere between step four and five.  Less than one full week has passed; at last count, nearly 100 people were still hospitalized, and we are mostly done.  Las Vegas has largely fallen out of the media cycle, replaced by Hurricane Nate, the continued efforts in Puerto Rico, North Korea, the rape accusations against Nelly, and the general chaos in the White House.  Oh wait... and the NFL protests just popped up on my news feed again.

Are these things important?  I'll give PR a resounding yes, the rest fall on the spectrum somewhere between "no" and "kind of." I'm not saying this tragedy needs full news coverage around the clock until the end of time, but by allowing it to move out of the spotlight so quickly, we are minimizing its importance and we are virtually guaranteeing that nothing will ever change.

And that, America, is what makes me so sad.  I, and thousands of my fellow citizens, weep in pain knowing that within a few days, we will be all but forgotten and nothing will change.  A minority of the American population (and yes, it is a minority) holds the rest of us hostage with its money and influence.  That minority has created its own Truth about America, which is not based in fact, but is based in fiction, and has forced the rest of us to live by that Truth.

Somehow, we as a society have been led to believe that America was founded, and for the past 200+ years has functioned, pursuant to the idea that the individual citizen has the right, duty, and in some cases the obligation to arm himself.  We are told that citizens must be armed to protect themselves from the impending danger that lurks around every corner, and the government that is waiting to strip the individual of his rights.  Look at American history, they say -- look at the American Revolution, Westward Expansion.  Citizen-soldiers armed themselves against tyranny.  Pioneers kept firearms for protection.  It's basically written on the flag!  That is why the second amendment is so important.

So - let's break that down a bit.  The American Revolution took place between 1775 and 1783.  Eight years.  Citizens took up arms to fight against a "tyrannical" English government.  Whether they were are not is a question for another day.  However, citizen-soldiers went to literal war with the guns in their homes.  There was not a standing army capable of fighting a war of that scale.  Also - they had black powder guns.

War ends, things settle down.  Generally speaking, people are not carrying guns around with them.  They live in cities.  In theory, many families continued to have a gun in their home, but as time goes on, that practice fades.

Westward expansion - running from the 1850s to the early 1900s - is a weirdly romanticized period in American culture.  Many see it is uniquely ours, and a sort of bedrock on which our "modern values" stand.  When we picture the Old West, we think cowboys and revolvers, horseback riding and valiant heroes.

Mostly that's all made up.  Seriously.

Maybe not the horseback riding.

The Old West was largely safe.  Most towns had law enforcement and banned guns outright.  The vast majority of the violence cited in statistics stemmed from the indiscriminate killing of Native Americans by the U.S. Army.  Civilians were still using black powder rifles or revolvers.

With the exception of farmers killing nuisance animals and actual hunters, few Americans had multiple guns in their homes.  Prior to 1994, there were less than 4 million guns in American circulation.  That number crept up and violence increased.  In response to a shooting at an elementary school which killed four and injured 35 students, the government restricted sale and manufacture of military-style semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines; it also introduced the idea of background checks and waiting periods.

So, what happened?  Violence decreased and gun circulation decreased.  Between 1994 and 2004, there were 17 mass shootings, as defined by the ATF.  But, in 2004 the restrictions expired.  Civilians could purchase and own unlimited numbers and types of weapons.  The NRA advocated for its members to own these weapons "for protection."  Ironically, while the number of weapons in circulation increased nearly 400%, fewer homes have weapons.  This means, less people are buying more guns.

From 2004 - present there have been 65 mass shootings (using the same criteria), an undisputed increase.  Of these 65, nearly 50 (including the Las Vegas gunman) used the type of weapons banned by the previous restrictions.  In other words, common sense weapons restrictions work.

You know what doesn't work?

  • Thoughts and prayers
  • Conspiracy Theories
  • Regulating unrelated things (metal detectors in schools, anyone?)
  • Hashtags
  • More guns
  • Empty platitudes
So please, stop suggesting these things.  Do something.  Vote for politicians that will do something.  Do not stop reminding yourselves, Every. Single. Day. that we can do something about this, and those that tell you otherwise are lying.


  1. Thank you for a sober, sensible analysis of the situation. You've pointed out nicely the flaw in the "nothing could have stopped this" argument. When 50 of the 65 mass shooters murdered innocent people with weapons that had been banned, the cause and effect is rather easy to see. It's hard to kill hundreds of people from the 32nd floor with a pistol, but it's easy to wash your hands and offer prayers.


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