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I Don't Care about the Las Vegas Shooter's Motives

In the week since a man opened fire at country music festival concertgoers from his hotel room many stories above, there has been a strong desire to understand his motives, even going so far as to write about his brain. I have read more articles than I'd like to admit on him, learning about his gambling habits, his marriage history, his real estate decisions, and his family's history -- his dad was an actual bank robber. And then I realized this morning, as I read several articles about the lax to non-existent gun laws in Nevada and across our country, the obsession over the shooter is a waste of time if our goal is to prevent mass shootings. (This is why I'm not even going to bother writing the shooter's name in this article).

There will only be one October 1, 2017, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, shooter. There have been and will be countless other shooting deaths across our country. There have already been 277 verified mass shootings in this year in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive, a not for profit that reports about American gun violence. 

Say after talking to his brother and his girlfriend and his neighbors and the floor manager of the slot room at the casino where he spent hours, we put together all the pieces of the Las Vegas shooter's past to come up with a motive, what good will that do us when someone else opens fire on a crowd? Then it's back to square one to deign the motive of someone who will at that point likely be dead or in jail.

The endeavoring to identify a motive is an understandable, if problematic, curiosity. Our society, myself included, has a perverse fascination with outlaws, bad guys, anti-heroes, and damaged people. But even if it is understandable, it is counter-productive because it distracts us from the real things we could do to minimize shootings, which is to regulate guns.

Guns, unlike people, are predictable. They shoot and kill or severely injure. And yet, we do not make it hard for people to get and operate these deadly products, the way we would for just about every other consumer product.

As two faculty members from Boston University's School of Public Health, Michael Siegel and Molly Pahn, have found, there has been a surge in laws that make it easier to buy guns, and even to fire a gun with immunity from prosecution--so-called "stand your ground" laws, like the one that got George Zimmerman off from killing Trayvon Martin. The "stand your ground" law was actually crafted by a former president of the National Rife Association. The NRA has also been successful at getting states to enact laws that protect the gun industry from legal liability. "No other consumer product manufacturer enjoys such broad immunity," write BU faculty Siegel and Pahn. 

And how does the NRA succeed, aside from its enormous money and political power? The NRA succeeds philosophically. It has convinced enough people that we need to hold individuals to account rather than policymakers, manufacturers, and the NRA. America is a country that focuses on individuals more than most. We like to think you and I are mostly responsible for our successes and failures. This individualism, translated to shooting, means that we focus on the shooter and his motives, as we are doing with Las Vegas, rather than on systemic changes we could make, the most obvious of which is to tighten gun regulations.

But even in the U.S., we aren't that extreme. There have been questions about improving the security at casino hotels, the security at concerts, and even whether we could identify killers through a crime gene. It's fair to ask these questions, and to try to improve security. But again, the next shooting will not be at a concert. It will be somewhere else. The common denominator will be guns. But the NRA doesn't want us to go there, and neither do their Republican supporters in Congress and in statehouses across the country. They will be fine asking questions about security and crime genes, but the one thing we cannot ask about is guns.

I wrote an article a few years ago about the relatively under-the-radar epidemic of gambling addiction in America--which oddly may now be of greater interest because of this shooting. The gambling industry, like the gun industry, liked to focus attention around gambling addiction on the individual, to the point of funding research for a neurological model or "disease point-of-view" of gambling addiction and staying away from funding any research that studied the connection between availability of gambling and levels of addiction. As one of the few researchers who studied the latter pointed out, “If I were the gambling industry, I would want to fund people who had the disease point-of-view ... because [they are] putting the source of problem gambling between the ears of the gambler.”

I'm not saying that there is no fault or accountability that an individual should have to assume for gambling addiction, or for shooting. But what I'm most concerned about is how do we prevent deaths? We tend to be more successful when we look at problems such as mass shootings as societal challenges, with societal solutions. We have done this to prevent deaths from tobacco, automobiles, and food. As interesting as it may be to understand the Vegas assailant's motives, we're not going to prevent the next mass shooting by understanding the brain of the last shooter, but by making sure the next would-be shooter does not have an arsenal of guns.