At eleven p.m. on October 1, Meredith and I crouched behind a four-inch-wide metal partition in a boutique in the Aria, a casino-hotel just under a mile north of the Mandalay Bay Casino where, evidently, tens of people had just been shot by a mass murderer.
We had learned this news in a women’s bathroom in the Monte Carlo from two panicked cleaning women who had been instructed by security to tell no one, but who felt it was their duty to tell everyone who would listen. For a while, Meredith and I hid in the bathroom with others, and rumors flew: there were multiple shooters; the shooter was heading this way; people were dead everywhere on the Strip; there was a car with a bomb.
Meredith shakily told one of the cleaning women, whose name tag read “Julia,” that we just wanted to get back to our hotel room in the Vdara. Julia nodded firmly and led us through the casino, where she pointed the way to our hotel through the tall glass walls of the Aria. Flashing red and blue lights illuminated the world, and security guards stood at all doors barring our exit. They couldn’t tell us when it would be safe, they said. The area had not been secured yet. No one knew where the shooter was, and they’d heard twenty people had been killed, fifty injured.
From our hiding place in the boutique, we watched as people rushed in all directions toward safety, though no one—even the authorities—knew where safety was.
I whispered to Meredith that we needed to be wary of every lone white male.
A white man in a bulky jacket strode into the boutique, and I pulled Meredith to the floor with me just as he called to a woman behind him, “They have champagne. We might as well drink while we wait.”
Two women in black sparkly dresses hurried into our corner carrying their strappy shoes. Their faces were streaked with tears, their long hair tangled and wild. “Do you sell mascara?” one woman asked me, pleading. “I need some.” She peered more closely at me. “Oh. You don’t work here, do you?”
Meredith kept the Las Vegas Police Department’s Twitter feed open on her phone, but we learned only that a mass shooting had indeed occurred at Mandalay Bay, where we had wandered a couple of hours before, searching for the best place to celebrate Meredith’s birthday.
I planned. If the shooter appeared on the floor above us, we could pull this partition down on top of us as a shield. If the shooter broke through the line of blue-coated security guards at the Aria’s front doors, we could dive for the cleaning closet just behind us. If . . .
The adrenaline that pulsed in my blood made me nauseated. I tried to close my eyes and imagine a golden bubble surrounding me and Meredith; I prayed, pleading that Mitike still needs her two moms.
At two a.m., when the LVPD lifted the lockdown in our area, we scurried with others across the street to the Vdara, where we rode the elevator to our room and locked our door behind us.
But still, days later, we are not safe.
None of us are safe, not yet. Six hundred people are either dead or injured today because they wanted to attend a country music concert. One hundred people were either killed or injured at the Pulse in Orlando in 2016 because they wanted to go out and dance. Nine people were killed in their own church in Charleston in 2015 because they wanted to pray. Twenty first graders were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 because they wanted to learn.
These Americans just wanted to go to school, or attend a concert, or gather for Bible study, or dance with their friends, or eat at a restaurant, or walk in a park. They believed they lived not in a wartorn country but in the golden bubble of America.
But they died.
They died, and many more of us will die until enough of us rise to resist the NRA and its myths about guns in America. Many brilliant writers are waxing eloquent about this right now, including Adam Gopnick for the New Yorker and James Fallows for The Atlantic. Late-night talk show hosts, major newspapers, bloggers, and country music singers are all shouting the now too-familiar refrain: When will this stop? When will America finally control its guns? When will we feel truly safe in this nation again?
Gopnick wrote on October 2, “Gun control acts on gun violence the way antibiotics act on infections—imperfectly but with massive efficacy.” Columbine, Aurora, Orlando, Charlotte, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas—and every day in 2017 so far, someone with a gun has fired at four or more people.
However, there are those who insist—their fingers on the triggers of .44 Magnums or Glock 19s or AR-15 rifles—that this American sickness, this propensity for crowds of people to suddenly fall dead to the ground, is definitely, definitely, definitely not caused by guns.
Let’s name this.
These people nod at the Second Amendment, at that claim for a “well-regulated militia” written by men who never imagined semiautomatic weapons made automatic by bump stocks—because they do not want to give up their guns.
These people point to our need for more mental health service providers, for better diagnoses, and for more mental health care facilities—because they do not want to give up their guns. They shrug, shaking their heads sadly, offering prayers, noting that Stephen Paddock must have been deranged—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They insist that gun control takes the guns from the good guys and puts them in the hands of the bad guys, though Stephen Paddock was, according to his clean record and his successful passing of background checks in gun shops, a “good guy” until he fired at a country music concert from a thirty-second-story window—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They argue for travel bans and crackdowns on inner-city crime, though the worst mass shootings in contemporary American history have been committed by white male Americans named Eric, James, Dylann, and Stephen—because they do not want to give up their guns.
They shake their heads sadly and say, “Gun control just won’t work. It can’t prevent these kinds of tragedies. That’s what the data says”—because they do not want to give up their guns. They elect and support senators and representatives who have shut down gun violence research at the CDC for twenty years—because they do not want to give up their guns.
When some of us point to Australia or Scotland, and how those nations responded swiftly to mass shootings, they shudder, saying mandatory buy-backs, twenty-eight-day waiting periods, extensive background checks, and tight regulation would never work in America—because they do not want to give up their guns.
The solutions are not simple, but this is true, gun lovers, NRA supporters, “super owners”: guns caused these deaths. Stop telling me that now is not the time to talk about gun control. Now is the only time to talk about gun control. Now is the only time to see you lay out your collection on your living room floor and tell us all exactly why you should not be licensed, registered, and policed with these deadly weapons just as we are all required to be licensed, registered, and policed to drive a car.
I do not necessarily want you to give up your guns. I want you to admit that it is a problem that we do not know who has them, or who has a hundred, or who has a bump stock on their semiautomatic and plans to fire it tomorrow into a crowd.
The members of Congress who refuse to protect us, who pocket thousands from the NRA, walk through metal detectors into the Capitol Building each day. Every day, I walk into a large public high school in Colorado that, in spite of Columbine and Aurora, lacks metal detectors and stations only one police officer at a front table. Every day, my wife walks into an unprotected office to provide mental health treatment to her patients. Every day, millions of Americans walk vulnerable, exposed, in public spaces of all kinds.
The unwillingness to talk about gun control is criminal. And the unwillingness of many of our lawmakers to act—even to ban semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines, silencers, or bump stocks, all of which a shooter only requires if he has ill intent—reveals those lawmakers are choosing money over the lives of the people they claim to represent.
For the hours my wife and I took shelter in the cosmetics section of the Aria boutique, I mostly worried about how to protect us. I did not think about universal background checks or waiting periods or bans on semiautomatic weapons. I just wanted us both to live. But today, alive, I’m livid again. Enough!
Just after the June 2014 shooting at an Oregon high school, President Obama noted in a press conference, “If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.”
Organizations like EveryTown for Gun Safety (to which Meredith and I donated this week) are fighting for that shift in public opinion. Some people are calling their U.S. senators; some are turning to their state legislatures to ask them to enact the laws the federal government refuses to.
It is not time to throw up our hands, again, and say we can do nothing to prevent the next inevitable public shooting.
It is time to demand that Congress choose our lives over their pockets. It is time to insist that each of us has an inalienable right to live our lives in this country in pursuit of happiness, free from fear that a white man with a gun will kill us. It is time for a great wave of us to say to Congress: “Enough.”
About Sarah Hahn Campbell
Sarah Hahn Campbell is a lesbian essayist and novelist who lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches high school English and parents a beautiful little girl with her wife, Meredith. Campbell has published work in a variety of publications, including Curve, Room Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Iris Brown Lit Mag, and Adoptive Families Magazine. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, came out in January 2014 from Riptide. Originally from a farm in eastern Iowa, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and writes a monthly column called “Subversions” for Brain Mill Press.