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On a Sunday night in Las Vegas, the seasons of life described in the book of Ecclesiastes compressed into a matter of moments for thousands of stunned concertgoers.
A time to dance became a time to mourn. A time to laugh was a time to weep. And for 58 men and women born a few decades ago, a festive evening was suddenly, tragically a time to die.
The familiar response to the Las Vegas massacre—“we must stop this kind of violence”—is understandable. Sniper Stephen Paddock unleashed crushing carnage on hundreds of families before killing himself. Any commonsense precaution to try to stop similar tragedy is worth exploring.
But the pivot to gun control as a solution for mass murder reveals a deeper desire many seem to express during seasons of disasters: How can we prevent tragedy altogether?
Indeed, as a series of fierce hurricanes blasted Texas, Florida, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico, some environmental activists blamed global warming and suggested combating climate change could prevent similar disasters down the road.
After the Las Vegas sniper busted the windows of his 32nd-floor hotel room and murdered concertgoers below, gun control activists suggested stronger restrictions could stop such ruthless men.
But hurricanes happen, and as Ross Douthat of The New York Times noted: “In a free society, madmen and monsters find a way to kill.”
Some steps could help. Even the National Rifle Association expressed openness to restrictions on the kind of bump-stock device Paddock reportedly attached to his weapons. Such devices enable a semi-automatic weapon to fire about as rapidly as a machine gun.
Still, even with restrictions in place, a determined gunman could modify his weapon. And the majority of gun-related homicides in the United States involve handguns, not semi-automatic rifles, according to the FBI.
Most shootings aren’t the kind of high-profile massacres like the one in Nevada. As Las Vegas mourned 58 dead, Chicago officials reported 57 homicides in the month of September. The city reported more than 4,300 shooting victims last year.
Stopping that violence isn’t easy either. Many shootings in urban areas are related to deep-rooted problems like broken families, gang violence, drugs, and poverty. When officials in Washington, D.C., banned most handguns in the district for over 32 years, gun violence soared. The Supreme Court struck down the ban in 2008.
That doesn’t mean we’re helpless. Gun violence in urban areas calls for addressing root problems that go beyond gun laws. And good police work (along with good relationships between communities and police) is critical to solving crimes and weakening criminal rings.
But in some cases, heinous crimes seem impossible to predict: Authorities grasped even to find a motive for Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas.
The bewildering variety of settings for mass shootings underscores the unpredictability: a first-grade class, a prayer meeting, a movie theater, a U.S. military center, an office Christmas party, a gay nightclub, a D.C. Navy yard, a congressional baseball game, a concert in a desert city.
We can’t prevent every tragedy in a sinful world, but we can prepare to respond. In Las Vegas, concertgoers proved themselves ready to lay down their lives for others in an instant.
Jack Beaton flung himself on his wife, Laurie, when the gunfire started. He told her he loved her and then bled out from a gunshot wound on their 23rd wedding anniversary. John Phippen, 56, died from a gunshot wound after shielding a woman he didn’t know. The father of six died in the arms of one of his sons.
Local churches were ready to respond. Pastor Vance Pitman of Hope Church Las Vegas said his Southern Baptist congregation sent pastors and certified grief counselors downtown.
They opened their doors all day after the shooting, but the church had also spent years developing good relationships with the city and first responders. They’ve hosted funerals for fallen officers and conducted service projects at local fire stations. When tragedy struck, they were prepared to offer gospel-based hope to a local community they already knew.
Ultimately, whether the end is high-profile or private, God numbers our days. The morning after the Vegas shootings, singer Tom Petty died suddenly after suffering cardiac arrest. Petty, 66, had famously sung about never backing down: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”
Death comes for every man, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us. The most important preparation, he says, is to “remember also your Creator” while we’re still able. We should work to prevent tragedies, and respond to them with compassion, recognizing they reveal an unavoidable truth for each of us: “Man knows not his time.”
—with reporting by Sarah Schweinsberg in Las Vegas