Political News

In Las Vegas, doubt that Washington can solve gun violence

Posted October 3

— The familiar debate over gun control legislation is churning in Washington. But here in the city where 58 people were murdered Sunday night at a concert, those political machinations feel virtually irrelevant.

Ahead of President Donald Trump's visit Wednesday to a stunned Las Vegas, a kind of eerie stillness settled over this usually throbbing and vibrant city. In interviews with nearly two dozen people around the Las Vegas Strip and in the suburbs, the sense of frustration and hopelessness was palpable, accompanied by political apathy and disdain for the debate in Washington, where Republicans are largely resisting Democratic calls to review and toughen gun laws.

After a crime with no discernible motive, few people here had answers about what Trump or members of Congress could do to prevent the next tragedy. The blood banks, having met their need for the time being, were turning people away. At times, there seemed to be more volunteers passing mini muffins and orange juice than people to take them.

Tahomar Gil is a 36-year-old jiu jitsu instructor who helps organize a standing pool party on weekends near Mandalay Bay, the hotel from which the gunman fired upon an open crowd. He said he and his friends have been restless since the attack, wanting to find some way to help. On Monday, they drove to different blood donation centers delivering cases of water. On Tuesday, they checked in potential donors.

Gil said he and his colleagues felt like they were already "on high alert," especially whenever they saw news of a terrorist attack.

"We just felt like we were a target as 'America's playground,'" Gil said. "When you hear about a terrorist attack overseas, you just hear about it. But when it's here, you feel the pressure of it."

"It's so confusing what's happening with these attacks," he added. "There is a sense of helplessness at this point. It's just the uncertainty. What's going to happen today? What's going to happen tomorrow?"

Even with those concerns thrust to the forefront, Gil and many other voters shrank away from political questions, particularly about new restrictions on guns. For some, the shooting seems to have amplified Nevada's fiercely anti-government sentiment, underscoring the view that politicians don't have the answers.

For more than two decades, Nevada has been a critical swing state, helping deliver the White House twice for George W. Bush, and then twice for Barack Obama. The open congressional seat in the third district, south of Las Vegas, could help determine whether Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives next year. And voters here could also determine control of the Senate when they decide on the fate of GOP Sen. Dean Heller, who was targeted by Trump during the health care debate.

The state's governor, Brian Sandoval, is an enigmatic Republican with strong crossover appeal who was able to tap into the rapidly growing Latino population to win re-election. Latino voters, along with the powerful organizing forces of labor in Clark County, helped Hillary Clinton notch her narrow victory over Trump here last fall.

Those competing cross currents have produced many volatile races here and, at times, a hotbed of political activity. But so far, there is no evident groundswell of support for gun control measures being discussed in Congress.

Few said they were familiar with the so-called "silencer bill" backed by the National Rifle Association that Clinton highlighted in her rapid-fire tweets on Monday. (Clinton's pro-gun control views cost her votes among rural Democrats in Nevada last year when she faced off against Bernie Sanders). House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday the silencer legislation is "not scheduled" for consideration at the moment.

Andrea Holden, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom from Henderson who waited more than three hours with her four-year-old son to donate blood, noted the shooter appeared to have purchased guns legally and had passed a background check.

"To try and wrap your head around something like this -- I don't think anybody can," Holden said. "In my opinion, people who have mental illnesses should not have guns. But I am also a pro-gun person.... I try to stay out of all the politics," she added. "Every law has a loophole."

Holden, who voted for Trump, said she wasn't sure what he could do other than offer "a lot of reassurance that this isn't going to happen again."

Trump will arrive Wednesday in a city that is still struggling for normalcy. Large portions of Las Vegas Boulevard were closed to traffic until late Tuesday. The enormous LED screens that tower above the highway from the airport to the strip, which normally advertise shows and other attractions, flashed simple black and white messages thanking first responders and directing drivers to visit the Red Cross website.

The glare of the gold tinted windows of Mandalay Bay hotel, one of the most prominent buildings on the Strip, was impossible to ignore. Traffic bottled up at the exits closest to the hotel as drivers pointed, some attempting to catch a glimpse of the windows that were smashed by the gunman on the other side.

While Trump has received sharp criticism in Washington for his handling of recent disasters and tragedies -- from his slow reaction to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to his taunting of the San Juan mayor after the devastation of the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico -- a number of people here welcomed his visit.

That included Mickey and Bonita Deweese of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who spent the last morning of their anniversary trip -- where they renewed their vows at a historic chapel on the Strip -- waiting in a parking lot of University Medical Center in Northern Las Vegas to give blood.

"His presence is important," said Mickey Deweese, who said the President could offer comfort and condolences. "It's about all you can say in this situation," he said. "What else can you say?"

The desire to offer comfort and a sense of solidarity was what led Gary Marchinke, a 68-year-old former chauffeur, to drive from his home in Pahrump to wave a large American flag at a busy overpass on the highway between Henderson and Las Vegas.

He explained to a reporter that he normally waves his flag above the highway three times a year: On September 11th, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. It's part of how he lives his motto: "Always love your country, but never trust your government." After Sunday's shooting, "I told my wife I've got to go out and do this," he said.

Marchinke said his mood after the massacre was similar to what he felt after September 11th. While some people were sad, "I never hit the sad, sorrowful stage," he said. "With 9/11, I'm still in the pissed off stage. It's like I wanted to go find somebody and punch them. I wanted to do something. I wanted to vent." He felt restored by the cheers he got when he brought his flag to the highway.

"There's so much craziness, so much stupidity, so much insanity everywhere you look," Marchinke said, reflecting on the Las Vegas shooting. "You could come out here with a sign, but to me the flag just says it all.... This is what I have faith in. This is the ideal."

An employee from the nearby headquarters of Hospital Corporation of America crossed the busy overpass to ask if he could take Marchinke's picture. He said he wanted to send the snapshot to his colleagues around the country who asked for an update on how things were going in Las Vegas.

"The whole city is in kind of an emotional fog right now. You can feel it," Matt McPolin, the man who stopped to take a picture, told Marchinke.

When he saw Marchinke's flag, "I was honking my horn. It was good stuff," McPolin said. "Gary, he's out here, helping to mend the wounds. To heal us."

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