President Donald Trump was at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas on Wednesday visiting victims of Sunday’s mass shooting when a reporter asked him, “Do you think we have a gun violence problem?”
“We’re not going to talk about that today,” Trump responded. “We won’t talk about that.”
The day before, the White House had circulated talking points to Trump allies urging Republicans to resist new gun control measures that could arise in response to the massacre that left 59 dead and nearly 500 injured. “When it comes to gun control, let’s be clear: new laws won’t stop a mad man committed to harming innocent people,” the memo stated.
Trump says he’ll discuss gun laws “as time goes on.” But everyone Mother Jones spoke with in Las Vegas the day of the president’s visit—on both sides of the debate—thinks the time for a conversation is now.
On the northern fringe of the Vegas strip lies Las Vegas Gunfights, “a full contact gunfight arena” in which customers combine real guns, non-lethal ammo, and martial arts to battle each other in a warehouse with sand floors and stacks of barrels that can be used as weapons or for cover. “We’ve had six or seven guys knocked out this year,” says the owner—or, as he prefers, the “Commander of Chaos”—a former bounty hunter named Nephi Oliva. He said he’s an enigma to some people because he is an Afghan-American, born to a Muslim father and an American Mormon mother, who is an ardent Trump supporter and gun enthusiast. Still, he said, “While I support one particular viewpoint, we have other Americans who have other viewpoints, and their feelings are valid. They also want to be safe. And, frankly, I may disagree with them, but I also want them to be safe, too.”
Standing in the entryway of the warehouse, where camouflage netting and gunfight posters drape the walls, Oliva said, “We can have these conversations now…This is a democracy.” He issued his own proposal for gun control: “First, take the guns away from the criminals—disarm them first. Then take the guns away from crooked police officers. Then take them away from crooked politicians, and tyrannical government officials. Once you’ve done all that, I will gladly hand my guns over.”
Genghis Cohen, the owner of Machine Guns Vegas, where clients can shoot fully automatic Uzis and AK-47s and even fire off belt-fed machine guns from a helicopter, closed his range for two days following the massacre and voiced support for having frank discussions about gun regulation. “If we can change laws to make people safer, then why would we not do that?” he told the Guardian. “Someone’s got to say something because if we don’t we end up looking like a bunch of cockroaches scurrying for cover.”
“Now is exactly the time,” Donna Waldron, 66, said at a rally for gun control at Las Vegas’ Sunset Park, where about 30 demonstrators gathered on Wednesday night. “On a sunny day, you don’t worry about the roof leaking. When the monsoon comes, you worry about the roof leaking. This is a monsoon of violence in our country. Sandy Hook, Charlottesville, Las Vegas, Texas—the gunning down of six police officers.”
“If we have to wait until there isn’t a mass shooting to discuss this issue, we’ll be waiting forever,” said Jean Green Dunbar, 34, a Nevada state coordinator for the Women’s March on Washington who helped organize the rally. Last year, Dunbar canvassed for a ballot measure to enforce background checks on all gun sales. Nevada voters narrowly passed the measure, but state Republican leaders have continued to block its implementation. “Our attorney general, Adam Laxalt, refuses to enforce it,” Dunbar lamented. (In a speech at the NRA’s annual convention last April, Laxalt boasted of his role in opposing the measure’s passage and implementation.) “What we have in place, we need to enforce, and we can’t roll it back,” she said.
Several gun owners showed up at the rally, including Waldron, who keeps her late husband’s pistol for protection, and Michael Hart, 69, who argued that a handgun or a regular rifle is perfectly sufficient to protect one’s home. “I think people should people be allowed to have guns,” he said, “but not military-style guns.”
Several participants at the rally rejected the widespread perception that the gun debate breaks down along ideological lines, with liberals seeking tighter controls on guns and conservatives opposing them. “I have lots of family members that own weapons, that hunt, that are conservatives, that absolutely believe in gun control,” said Dunbar, adding, “We are not divided. Most Americans want these regulations.”
According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans from both major political parties support universal background checks, the creation of a federal database to track gun sales, and a ban on assault-style weapons.
Even as the president and top Republican lawmakers in Washington remain reluctant to discuss the issue, there is bipartisan support for one new gun control measure: a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would ban “bump stocks,” the type of device used by the Las Vegas gunman that enables semi-automatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds per minute. On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he would likely support the legislation. “The fact that fully automatic weapons are already illegal and this makes another weapon capable [of automatic fire], I would be supportive of that,” he said. In an interview with Miami’s NPR affiliate, WLRN, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said, “Right now the best candidate for a common denominator is to focus on these bump stock devices, which are so deadly and so potent.” He added, “I’ve even spoken to people who are involved in the gun manufacturing business, and they have told me that these things should not be legal.”
Meanwhile, several Republican lawmakers have said they no longer expect a controversial bill that would deregulate gun silencers to come up for a full House vote. The legislation would remove silencers from the list of regulated items under the National Firearms Act of 1934, making their purchase subject only to an instant background check, or potentially to no regulation at all in states that don’t require background checks for private gun sales. On Tuesday morning, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) told reporters, “I don’t think there’s any support to bring it up.”
“A lot of people say they don’t want to roll back their Second Amendment rights,” said Deborah Johnson, one of the organizers of the gun control rally on Wednesday night. “Well, we don’t know how to control our Second Amendment rights. We abuse our Second Amendment rights. How many mass shootings have to happen before we have an honest conversation?”