We Are All Las Vegas, But We Don’t Have To Be

We have lived according to the ethos of the NRA and the gun lobby and conservative Senators and fearful, unsympathetic citizens long enough. It’s time to try something new, for the rest of us and for our children. It is time to act.

At approximately 3:30pm on Saturday, September 30, my wife and I sat in heavy traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard, headed toward the MGM Grand. We had chosen to stay there for the night because we had tickets for the Depeche Mode concert across the street at the T-Mobile Arena. Traffic seldom moves quickly on the Strip, but that day, it seemed slower than usual. We sat through the same red light several times, even though we weren’t far from the intersection.

Deeply stressed and angry, I felt grateful that my wife was driving. My stomach was in turmoil, as it usually is. The inching forward every few minutes, as if we were headed for some massive, multi-lane wreck, disturbed and concerned me. I had not taken my afternoon anxiety medication. I had not eaten lunch. For these and a dozen other reasons—some might say “excuses”—I was not my best self. And so, once we got to the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and West Reno Avenue; once we saw that traffic had stalled because thousands of people were crossing the street to enter an outdoor concert area; once we saw that police officers were sometimes letting people cross against the light, further delaying our progress; once I saw that many of these pedestrians were stepping off the sidewalk and using our lane for a supplementary pathway, all my ailments caught up to me. Like a stupid, selfish, entitled teenager, I took a picture of the crowds, posted it on Instagram, and captioned it thusly:

“I hate all these motherfuckers.”

I didn’t truly hate them. I hated the situation, and they were a convenient symbol of the aggregate causes of my stress. But I took that picture, and I posted it, and I wrote that caption. Now I have to live with it.

I have since taken the photo down—not to hide the fact that it existed, but because, for all I know, someone in that picture died on Sunday, October 1st, when a white male terrorist fired weapons into the crowd from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay. It seems unlikely that the friends and relatives of the victims would ever find my little Instagram account, which almost no one follows, but on the off-chance, I don’t want to deepen their pain.

On Saturday night, my wife and I walked the Strip perhaps two blocks from the country music festival. On Sunday morning, we took Tropicana Avenue until we merged on the freeway. And all that time, Stephen Paddock lurked in Mandalay Bay. Had he opened up on the outdoor concert Saturday afternoon, we would have been stuck in our car, right in his crosshairs.

Yesterday morning—Monday, October 2nd—I met with my classes, wondering who might show up (more than I expected), whether anyone could stay focused long enough to do our work (in one class, yes; in the other, not really), and what each empty seat might mean—a typical illness? Work conflict? Transportation issue? Or could that empty seat mean that one of my students lay dead somewhere in the city, or in a hospital bed, or on the streets looking for friends and relatives who had gone to the concert and never come back?

How do you determine meaning when one man with a personal arsenal can make everything else seem meaningless? And why—for God’s sake, why—does America breed so many white men with so many guns?


If you are a reader preparing even now to come at me with the usual tired, debunked, fallacious, reductive arguments for the sanctity of all firearms and the Second Amendment, let me save you some time and invite you to go fuck yourself. In my professional and private lives, I have long refused to engage in the same old arguments with the same old “thinkers” who cite the same old sources and examples. Boiled down to its barest essence, their position seems to be something like this: “I like guns. The Constitution says I can have them. No solution will ever completely cure our mass sickness. Therefore, there is nothing to be done.”

To these people, the most conciliatory statement I can make is “fuck your guns and your agonized, tortured reading of the Constitution.”

People have been dying by the thousands for years. As of this moment, 58 are dead in Las Vegas. Over 500 are injured. Come walk through the blood on our streets. Go look the victims’ families in the face and tell them that their loved one died because you fought against every common-sense measure to curb gun violence. Explain why your gun fetish is more important than someone’s child. Explain how your paranoid need to compile automatic and semiautomatic large-clip assault rifles “for self-defense” is anything other than a deep and shameful cowardice masquerading as originalism. Explain why you fight against the mere whisper of a suggestion that maybe we need to consider having a conversation about solutions. Explain all that to the victims’ families and friends, if you dare. Will you need to bring your AR-15 with you to find the courage?


As they have done in the wake of every other mass shooting during their tenure, our Washington leadership has thus far done nothing—except, of course, line their pockets with cash from the gun lobby while the rest of us wade through blood and gristle in the streets. Take their Twitter feeds—please. From He Who Shall Not Be Named, that guy in the White House: “My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!”

From Senate Majority Leader and Full-Time Turtle, Mitch McConnell: “What happened in #LasVegas is shocking, tragic, and for the families, it’s devastating.”

From Speaker of the House and Owner of the World’s Smuggest Face, Paul Ryan: “America woke up to heartbreaking news from Las Vegas. We stand united in our shock, our condolences, & our prayers.”

I have some questions.

Senator McConnell and Representative Ryan, why are you so shocked? This happens in America all the time. Your own legislative efforts, public speaking, social media accounts, and writings have helped allow it to happen. Every time some white male gunman kills a lot of people, you wring your hands and cry your fake tears and talk about how shocked you are that this “disgruntled lone wolf” could have done such a thing. How can you be shocked by the same acts, over and over and over, when you have made sure the conditions that allow the shocking acts to happen are never, ever altered?

“For the families, it’s devastating,” says McConnell. No shit. But why isn’t it devastating for you?

He Who Shall Not Be Named offers his “warmest condolences,” which help about as much as dedicating a golf trophy to Puerto Rican hurricane victims—which he also did.

I suppose we should be grateful that only Ryan mentioned prayers. Every time there is a massacre, conservatives trot out their “thoughts and prayers” like fine china used to impress visiting relatives. They think and they pray—allegedly—instead of acting. They vote against assault rifle bans and background checks and anything that seems remotely sensible to sane people. As I said in my own tweet this morning, why are politicians thinking and praying as if they have no power to do anything else? How about acting, and in someone’s interest other than your own?

Do something.


This is the fourth shooting to which I have been personally connected. Years ago, before all this was so common, a disgruntled employee at the industrial plant where my father worked shot several people. My own maternal grandfather and first cousin died from gunshot wounds for the crime of helping another cousin leave her abusive husband. One day, I monitored social media in horror as one of my friends from graduate school huddled in a darkened classroom with his students, an active shooter stalking his campus. Believe it or not, as he kept us updated through Facebook, he also had to debate gun control with his “friends.” That’s right; they argued for the Sacral Firearm while their own friend was hiding from an armed murderer. And now this—58 dead, over 500 wounded. How many Americans have seen lunatics with guns alter their lives’ trajectories? How many of those lunatics could have been stopped before they ate their own gun barrels if this country simply had the courage and the conscience to stand up?


So what to do? Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I know in my deepest heart of hearts that “do nothing yet again” is not one of them. “Send thoughts and prayers to victims while acting to assure more victims in the future”? No. “Have meaningless arguments with people who lack empathy”? Absolutely not. Cancer of Empathy is the American illness, and if you feel more loyalty and compassion for your weapons than for your fellow human beings, you are a cancerous cell ravaging our bodies. The blood of the dead fills your every pore. And so your opinions and your laissez faire attitudes toward other people and your façade of helplessness mean nothing to me. Take that shit somewhere else.

As for me, I have long advocated a complex, multi-faceted solution that would likely take years to implement. It involves not only the changing of laws but the changing of hearts. “The Second Amendment means we cannot restrict what kinds of weapons people can buy,” far-right conservatives cry, but we already do that. You can’t pop over to Target and buy a surface-to-air missile or weapons-grade plutonium. You can’t hit up the corner convenience store for a fully-armed tank. Once you admit that we already restrict the Second Amendment according to a weapon’s potential for damage, its likely usefulness to an average civilian, and common sense, then the rest of the discussion is merely a matter of scale. You don’t need an AR-15 for hunting deer or an Uzi to defend your home, and if you do, you’re an incompetent chickenshit.

You trolls can put away the “stop blaming the tool and not the person” crap, too. If you refuse to see a correlation between this country’s ridiculously lax gun regulations, allowing for easy availability to people with mental health problems, your opinion means nothing to me. “You want to ban knives, too?” I wouldn’t mind, but Stephen Paddock was not throwing knives at that crowd. When knives can do that much damage that quickly, then we’ll talk about knives.

Gun nuts are right about one thing, though—laws, by themselves, are insufficient. That is why I have never advocated mere lawmaking. I am also aware that plenty of safe, sane gun owners exist—I am related to many of them—and I have never advocated for taking away somebody’s hunting rifle, despite its destructive potential. I didn’t even do so when my grandfather and cousin were murdered with a hunting weapon, because those murders were committed by one asshole who used the weapon for a purpose it was never meant to fulfill. Assault weapons’ whole raison d’etre, though, is to kill and injure as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible. They are weapons of war. Why are they in our homes?

Along with laws, what else should we do? Sure, let’s destigmatize seeking mental health care, and let’s make it affordable and widely available. Sure, let’s expand background checks. What else?

We need to abandon the “disgruntled lone wolf” label when an American white male kills a lot of people and apply the correct epithet to him/her/them: American terrorist. Fox News, I’m especially looking at you, though you are far from the only culprit.

Perhaps most importantly, though, and the hardest step of all, would be to change the way we think about violence. The poet and activist Adrienne Rich once said, “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” The same can be said about solving our problems with violence, whether that violence takes the form of an ass-whipping in a street fight or bullying or firing assault rifles into crowds. Violence should be a last resort. When we see it as the default response to our problems, personal or political or societal, we have already given away our souls.

What about entertainment? As a writer, I am as guilty as the next scribe of using violence in my work, though I often do so to say something about the cost. I wonder if the romanticizing of guns and outlaws we so often read in our books and see on our TV/movie screens and hear in our songs has anything to do with a mentally/emotionally unbalanced man reaching for a weapon. Is it possible to tell many of the same stories while minimizing violence? Can we do something in our schools to train citizens in resistant reading—the ability to reject what is modeled for us in art and life so that we can choose a better way? Are we even willing to try?

This, I believe, must be the nature of any solution—a battle on many fronts (see how easy it is to slip into the language of war?). It will take time, and it will take patience, and it will take efforts so tremendous that they beggar the imagination.

More than all that, though, it will take empathy—the simple but increasingly rare ability to understand what others think, and how they feel, and what they are going through, instead of always seeing the world through the distorted lens of the self.

I try to get better at this every day. Often, I fail. But I keep trying.

We have lived according to the ethos of the NRA and the gun lobby and conservative Senators and fearful, unsympathetic citizens long enough. It’s time to try something new, for the rest of us and for our children. It is time to act.

So do something. Anything. I am talking to He Who Shall Not Be Named and McConnell and Ryan, but I am also talking to everyone reading this. I am talking to myself. We are all in this nation together.

In the meantime, Stephen Paddock will not change my life, no more than Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden did. When I want to attend a public event, I will. When I need to fly, I will board that plane. When I go to work on a college campus, I shall do so unarmed and unafraid. You can kill me, but you can only do it once. You will never make me afraid to live my life on my terms. I am stronger than that.

Imagine how strong we could all be, acting together, for the common good. Imagine a nation without fear or greed or love of self. Then stop imagining and walk through the blood and gristle with all of us Las Vegans, until we all reach a better place.

Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at officialbrettriley@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.

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