We don’t elect people to condole and pray. We elect them to solve public policy problems. When one man can equip himself with enough firepower to kill dozens, injure hundreds, and terrorize tens of thousands in a single violent act, we have a public policy problem that cuts to the core of why we form a society.
We live under a Constitution and laws instead of under thatched roofs in the wilderness because we got tired of living under the constant threat of rape, rapine, enslavement, and violent death. On our own, our lives, loved ones, and belongings are only as secure as we can make them by our own force of arms. If we want to hold on to anything more than a bundle we can carry at a full sprint—a collection of good books, a sturdy tepee, a pregnant wife—we must amass strength—muscle, weapons, family and friends willing to fight beside us. We must stand ever at the ready to use that strength, to do violence to all comers.
That constant vigilance gets tiring. The man who is always ready to kill on a moment’s notice cannot rest to enjoy his books, his tepee, or his wife and children. His murderous alert and exertions may well go for naught, for among all comers, there is always a killer who wakes while the man sleeps. No matter how hard a man works, he can always find a rival with a stronger fist, a better bow, more friends, or more treasures to bribe the man’s wife and friends to betray him. Principles like love and loyalty often count for squat against raw power in the state of nature.
We escape such solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives by entering the social contract. We all go in together on creating laws that we all will follow. We all chip in for a government to enforce those laws. And, most importantly for today’s discussion, we all agree to give up amassing our own personal armories and armies and any intention of waging our own personal wars. Enforcing the law and securing our lives, wives, and property become the mostly exclusive purview of the government, of all of us working together to protect each other. We prohibit any party to the social contract—individual or institution—from amassing so much power that it poses a threat to the balance of rights we are supposed to enjoy under the social contract. We even check the government’s power—through the Constitution, elections, separate branches, federalism, an independent press, initiative and referendum—to ensure that even if an unfit tyrant manages to take over the government, the general public still has refuge from and remedy to his tyranny.
Consider, then, the power that Stephen Paddock carried into his final room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas last night. He had ten rifles, at least one of them able to fire at a remarkably fast pace, fast enough to wound or kill one person per second.
Who in civil society needs ten rifles?
Who in civil society needs a stockpile of ammunition capable of imperiling the lives of 22,000 people?
We have understood since the beginnings of civil society that a mere social contract, an agreement among neighbors to follow the same rules and obey a common government or else, does not stop certain dolts or dastards from risking or else. No legal measure that America’s latest mass shooting may inspire—banning assault rifles, requiring storage of anything bigger than a six-shooter (or at least the ammo, à la Suisse) in a public armory, mandatory training and testing for gun permits, bulletproof glass on every public building—will guarantee that America will not experience another mass shooting. Finite laws cannot preclude humanity’s infinite sinfulness and stupidity.
But the imperfectability of the social contract should not stop us from trying to make it better. The fact that some sociopaths will keep finding ways to kill does not mean we should refrain from outlawing their killing or making that killing harder.
Most importantly, within a healthy social contract, nothing should stop us from outlawing behavior for which there is no good reason. Allowing one man to accumulate, not to mention use, the power to kill, injure, and terrorize thousands of his neighbors at once fundamentally violates the balance of power that we expect from the social contract.
If our social contract cannot forbid the kind of anti-social behavior in which Stephen Paddock engaged before he walked into the Mandalay Bay Hotel, we might as well give up our thoughts and prayers, retreat to our thatched huts in the woods, and stay up all night, slings and arrows in hand, forever at war with every fellow man.