In a single week, Las Vegas again reminds nation of what’s at stake in gun debate

Snapshots from a week in America’s endless civil war:

Shortly after sunrise on Tuesday, a small but solemn gathering took place at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater to mark the second anniversary of the darkest moment in Las Vegas history. Respectful tribute was paid, as it should always be paid, to the victims of the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting. Not only to the 58 murdered, but also to the hundreds wounded and thousands whose lives were changed forever.

Those victims should be remembered as part of the legion of people who lost their lives on the way to treating the nation’s gun obsession, but those words sound naïve even as I write them.

There were tears and prayers and uniformed first responders. Even officials with prepared texts at times appeared to search for the right words to reflect an indescribable loss. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, who made gun safety measures and banning bump stock attachments a central part of his agenda, had it right when he said, “As painful as it may be, especially on a day like today, our capacity to remember, to feel what we felt all over again, is what binds us together as a community – as a family and it makes us strong.”

Las Vegas will always remember. But will America?

With a friendly Legislature marching behind him and the horrors of 1 October haunting so many, Sisolak had a relatively easy path to the passage of AB 291, an omnibus gun safety bill. It’s a reminder of the power of leadership at the state level when Congress perennially fails to act.

On Wednesday, Democratic Party presidential candidates gathered to remind the nation of their deep concerns about gun safety, universal background checks, and banning semiautomatic assault rifles that are so easily converted to fire automatically. They also reminded Nevadans of the importance of the state’s first-in-the-West caucus. Most sang from similar choir books. They were loud enough, but given their general track record you’d be forgiven for being skeptical.

Will this time be different? The Democrats have an anemic success record against the gun manufacturers’ best friend, the National Rifle Association. Without a sweeping victory in 2020 that also changes the balance of power in the Senate, their mid-week speeches will be political drift smoke.

Cut to Thursday morning in a crowded law downtown law office: Attorney Robert Eglet, a hometown boy who made good, stood before the press to officially announce one of the largest civil settlements in American history just two years and two days after the nightmare of 1 October. Among the country’s most successful litigators, he’d come not to ridicule Mandalay Bay parent company MGM Resorts, but to praise it following a months-long mediation that will settle a sprawling lawsuit and provide from $735 million to $800 million to approximately 4,500 participating claimants including victims and their families, and with no admission of liability by the state’s largest employer. At times, the public face of the Eglet Adams law firm sounded as much like a representative of the casino giant as the plaintiffs’ lead Las Vegas counsel.

“While nothing will be able to bring back the lives lost or undo the horrors so many suffered on that day, this settlement will provide fair compensation for thousands of victims and their families,” Eglet said. “MGM Resorts is a valued member of the Las Vegas community and this settlement represents good corporate citizenship on their part. We believe that the terms of this settlement represent the best outcome for our clients and will provide the greatest good for those impacted by these events.”

A few minutes later, Eglet went off script and said something that should echo all the way to Washington. Talk of change is fine as far as it goes, but turning back America’s semi-automatic slaughter machine will only be successful when the gun manufacturers who make the weapons of war and sell them to civilians can no longer hide behind the litigation impunity carved out in Congress by the gun lobby.

“Are we really free when children in our country are afraid to go to school because they might get shot?” he asked. “Are we really free in this country when people are afraid to go to the movies, or even the grocery store, for fear there may be a mass shooting out there? Are we really free in this country when people in Las Vegas and our visitors can’t enjoy a concert on a beautiful fall night here in Las Vegas? Are we really free? I don’t feel very free with those types of things. … I would hope our leaders in Washington will take notice of this and do something about it. I’m not optimistic that’s going to happen, but I still have hope.”

The October 1 settlement represents a moment of hope for healing against a grim reality in our ceaseless civil war.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith