Shortly after 10 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2017, Kim Gervais and two fellow grandmothers were packed in with 22,000 other concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest outdoor music festival in Las Vegas. Country star Jason Aldean was in mid-song when the first staccato cracks of gunfire echoed across the crowd.
Gervais, then 56, a California small-business owner and country music fan, was struck in the back by a bullet. One of her friends was unharmed; the other died, among 58 initial fatalities in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“She lost her zest for life” during her two years living as a quadriplegic, her sister told an interviewer. “It was hard to be that same person that we all know and love.”
Gervais’ delayed death set her story apart from her fellow Las Vegas victims and briefly put the still-unsurpassed tragedy back in the news for the first time in a long time. Indeed, one symptom of America’s gun sickness is how quickly we have learned to move on, unchanged, from events that should change everything.
If a defective baby stroller was shown to kill 30,000 Americans a year, it would be off the market immediately and the manufacturers would spend the rest of their natural lives in civil court. But since these are guns, protected by a willful misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, we light some candles, say some words and move on.
Las Vegas is the exception that proves the rule. This one, for once, actually did lead to a policy change: a regulatory ban on the gun accessories known as “bump stocks.”
But like Gervais’ initial survival of the shooting, it was far from a perfect outcome.
Some definitions: Semi-automatic weapons are those that fire one round with each trigger pull. Fully automatic weapons — machine guns — fire a steady stream of rounds when the trigger is held in once.
Bump stocks are metal or plastic sleeves that slide over the stock of a semi-automatic weapon and use the recoil from the firing gun to push it back against the shooter’s trigger finger. When the shooter holds the trigger finger steady, the weapon will bounce against it repeatedly, firing rounds in far faster succession than is possible just by pulling the trigger. As heard on video of the Las Vegas shooting, the rat-tat-tat sounds just like a machine gun.
Among America’s relatively few national gun laws is the strong, decades-old federal restriction on civilian possession of machine guns. The only purpose of a bump stock is to circumvent that restriction, effectively turning a semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic one. This is how the Las Vegas shooter (I won’t use his name) mowed down hundreds of people in minutes and ended 58 (now 59) lives.
With such a high-profile tragedy, you’d think a federal law banning bump stocks would be a slam-dunk. The gun crowd may claim with a straight face that “well-regulated militia” somehow entitles every loon and his brother to a gun, but where in the Second Amendment is the protection for a “metal or plastic sleeve” with no purpose but to skirt existing laws?
Yet the National Rifle Association and its congressional allies successfully averted attempts to pass a federal law banning bump stocks. Because the momentum for such a law was so strong after Las Vegas, the NRA fell back to a position of supporting administrative restrictions on bump stocks — rules made by federal bureaucrats rather than stamped into law — which is the way to do it if you’re hoping to maybe undo it later. Laws have to be repealed, but administrative rules can just be rewritten.
As an essay on the pro-gun site BearingArms bluntly put it in defense of the strategy: “The plan was to avert this bill from passing.”
It worked, and thank goodness. After a shooting that kills 58 (now 59) human beings, the important thing is to make sure that any minimal gun-safety reform that has to be done in the face of an angry public can at least be easily undone later.
The story of the partial victory for sanity after Las Vegas is a draining one because it highlights how difficult winning more substantive reforms will be.
A bill to require universal criminal background checks for gun purchases sits untouched in the Senate. Calls to address gun stockpiling, high-capacity magazines and other reforms that might have saved Kim Gervais’ life haven’t gotten even that far.
It’s hard not to see these obstacles as insurmountable when even banning a piece of plastic couldn’t get a loud-and-clear vote in Congress. This is how utterly addled our politics has become on guns. Gervais may be the last fatality of our worst mass shooting, but the end of the broader body count is nowhere in sight.