The devil went down to Vegas and shot 500 people last week. Such, at any rate, was the moral of Stephen Paddock’s rampage for Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, in a recent interview with CBS News: “I do not think that the United States Congress can legislate away evil.” Rodrigo Meirelles, the president of Hampel’s Gun Company, agreed. “You cannot legislate evil, you cannot legislate stupid,” he pontificated to Fox 32. The Las Vegas massacre “was the pure act of evil,” GOP Congressman David Young of Iowa said on Wednesday. “And, you know, as much as we’d all like to, I don’t think the U.S. Congress—we don’t know how to legislate away evil. Just like I don’t think the U.S. Congress or anyone else knows how to legislate sanity.” Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, also a Republican, tweeted out the same talking point, albeit in an elevated tone of dudgeon: “To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs...You can’t regulate evil...”
In the mouths of Republicans and gun manufacturers, “evil” is a cynically evasive buzzword, highlighting the collective will of our conservative power elite to do nothing in the face of reprehensible mass slaughter. But the rhetoric of evil is more than a dodge; it’s also a tell. This is anti-democratic rhetoric: When conservatives frame gun violence in terms of spiritual warfare, pitting humans against supernatural powers and principalities, they suggest that there are only spiritual solutions to the problem and that legislative reforms are useless. “Against evil in its purity, what can mere humans accomplish? Politicians plead weakness and join the feeble citizenry in the only thing we humans can do: pray,” Patrick Blanchfield recently explained in n+1.
What good, in other words, are mere American laws against the works of Satan? But the trespasses involved in the Vegas massacre have far less to do with the lurid imagery of the Book of Revelation than with the workaday modern face of evil. Satan could have magicked all the guns on Earth to fire at once, but this was not what Paddock did. We can meet the GOP’s army of righteous instant theologians halfway and say that maybe the devil somehow set Paddock’s rampage off. But even so, Paddock profiles as an all-too familiar figure on the Trumpian American scene: an angry man with too much money, a gambling problem, and a penchant for screaming at his girlfriend in public. It’s true that the law could not have made him decent, or mitigated his anger. But it could have made it more difficult for him to murder 58 people from the windows of his hotel suite. Paddock had easy work for human reasons. Shooters do not conjure guns; they buy them.
The conservative fixation on evil, with sin as the subtext, is a symptom not only of religious hypocrisy but also of more secularized corruption. The gun lobby has invested decades of time and millions of dollars into purchasing political representation, which means it has purchased a kind of citizenship too; Mammon has shifted the balance of political power, away from the parents of Sandy Hook and toward Remington Outdoor. So Republicans flatten gun violence into a morality play, one that transforms perpetrator and victim into caricatures. If there is “evil” to be defined, identify it here, in this dehumanization.
Political rhetoric is never empty noise. Even at its most superficial level, it drives real action or inaction, and real consequences may be pinned to it. If mass shootings are binary events pitting good against evil, we must nominate monsters, and conservatives typically draw candidates from the ranks of the marginalized. Young’s pairing—we cannot legislate evil, we cannot legislate insanity—reinforces an old and troubled association of evil with mental illness.
Society alternately anoints people who are suffering from mental illness as prophets or scapegoats—a reflex that attests to centuries of prior abuse at the hands of the spiritually self-assured. Exorcisms and forced institutionalization, shock treatments and lobotomies; we have behaved, historically, like we can carve spirits out of brains. These beliefs mutate and persist, and resurface with a glumly predictable regularity after each new mass shooting. And indeed, what we know so far of the public reaction to Paddock’s massacre follows this pattern. There is already breathless speculation that anti-anxiety medication influenced his violence, as if Valium did the devil’s work and flipped some fateful switch in Paddock’s brain. This is not how Valium works, or how mental illness works, or how gun violence works. Most gun deaths in the United States are suicides; the mentally ill are disproportionately more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime, most definitely including gun violence.
These facts are not unhappy accidents. They are firmly embedded within a cycle of marginalization and abuse that mouthpieces of our dominant political culture like David Young perpetuate, however unwittingly. Mental illness is stigmatized, which means people with mental illness are estranged from society. And that, in turn, means that they are particularly vulnerable to abuse and murder. In his speculations about the foreordained limits of human legislation, Young hasn’t identified the cause of gun violence. He’s only further isolated a class of victims, while his party steadfastly refuses to expand access to health care. Every iteration of Trumpcare identified psychiatric care as a service states may refuse to cover under Medicaid. What does evil mean if not this?
This selective fear of evil is evident, too, in the Trump administration’s heavy-handed efforts to turn public attention away from the role of gun access in the Vegas massacre. As White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to fend off questions about the administration’s gun fetish, she hauled out a favorite Trump-branded talking point: “I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there.” The subtext here is not what you’d call subtle: Chicago—meaning the south side, meaning black people—possesses a mighty badness impervious to the law.
But this secularized and racialized version of the fatalist case for inaction in the face of untrammeled gun violence is also a right-wing fairytale. For starters, it’s not actually the case that Chicago has “the strictest gun laws in the country,” as NPR reported on Oct. 5. In addition, the city’s gun laws, no matter how stringent they may be, can’t compensate entirely for deficiencies in state law—or for the gun-happy state of legislation in Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana, just a few miles to the east. As long as people can easily bring guns in from outside city limits, or from outside Illinois, Chicago will bleed.
Other factors have stoked Chicago’s epidemic of violent crime, operating well beyond the city’s control. One recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that a probabilistic contagion model helped predict likely victims of gun violence in Chicago. “[Researchers] created social networks of all individuals involved (people were considered connected if they had been arrested at the same time, what they termed ‘co-offenders’),” explained Slate’s Danielle Ofri. “In studying more than 11,000 shootings, the researchers concluded that 63 percent of these events could be predicted via social networks.”
Ofri correctly warns against using the contagion model to justify some sort of social quarantine—a policy that would prove just as racist as the present lethal confluence of gentrification and broken-windows policing. Mindful of the further stigmatization that could arise from such an approach, researchers have urged a focus on people as potential victims rather than potential criminals. Perpetrators can be both aggressor and victim, and an inherited burden of racial discrimination can predispose them to either status.
But any such admission of moral complexity, let alone an operational acknowledgment of its policy ramifications, clearly can’t coexist with the lazy and self-interested caricature of gun violence as a regrettable yet immutable side effect of spiritual warfare. This schema only allows for the existence of angels and demons, and we have seen, repeatedly, who gets to be which. Michael Brown was “no angel.” Anthony Hill was mentally ill. Cops are beleaguered agents of good. Meanwhile, Republicans shrug.
But where guns are concerned, there are no devils and no angels—only people, who shoot out of rage, despair or some terrible hybrid of desperate, contingent emotions that receive no sanction, or disavowal, from on high. Gun violence is not a problem of evil. It’s a matter of public health, and the solutions are in front of us, if we can bring ourselves to see them for what they are.