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opinion

A.J. Somerset is the author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.

Among all we have seen from Las Vegas, the videos stand out: a steady rattle cutting through the music, unseen bullets seeking flesh as the band flees the stage. No one knows where to run. The crowd bends under wicked gusts of fire. To put yourself there is terrifying: All you can do is cower among those huddled helpless and await a bullet's caprice. Life or death comes down to chance.

Globe editorial: Donald Trump, hypocrisy and U.S. gun laws

Gun control: The Las Vegas massacre won't bring change

Yet this wasn't unprecedented. On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor observation deck of the Main Building tower at the University of Texas at Austin, and shot 46 people, killing 15. None had anything to do with Mr. Whitman; they just happened to be there. The victims of mass public shootings are always random, always helpless. Death carries a scythe in one skeletal hand; in the other, dice.

One thing that has changed since 1966 is the lethality of guns readily available to American civilians. When the Clinton-era assault-weapons ban expired in 2004, the United States gun industry took advantage, marketing rifles such as the AR-15 as "modern sporting rifles" to a post-9/11 public fixated on al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Along with those rifles came accessories: sights, hand grips, high-capacity magazines and bump-fire stocks that allow rifles to function as machine guns without stepping outside the law.

If terrorism can make anyone a victim, the United States seems determined to make everyone a soldier. And for more than a decade, U.S. gun nuts have been arming for war; war against terrorists at the Wal-Mart, against criminals in the night, against their fellow Americans on the protest line. The spectacle of automatic fire ringing out over a concert crowd was sadly inevitable – and the massacre in Las Vegas will not be the last such attack.

As in the aftermath of Sandy Hook or Orlando, you might hope that this latest horror would slap some sense into the stubborn and the obtuse. The gun lobby's arguments are emptier than ever. No good guy with a concealed handgun could hope to take out a shooter firing from behind cover at 365 metres. Neither does Las Vegas prove the futility of gun control. Twelve of the guns found in the shooter's suite were fitted with bump-fire stocks, which allow a semi-automatic rifle to achieve a machine gun's rate of fire. A bump-fire stock is perfectly legal. It costs less than $100.

The National Rifle Association has gone quiet. The stubborn and obtuse are left to bleat in lonesome darkness without so much as a glimmering candle to light their way. "Dude, where are you," one tweets to NRATV's Colion Noir. "Your voice is needed right now." Mr. Noir, whose usual trademark is obnoxious self-assurance, says he is waiting for the facts – presumably because the facts as they stand are unpalatable.

Never you mind: The faithful will see their reward. After Sandy Hook, the NRA wore its best poker face for a week, and then went all in at the astonishing news conference where NRA chief executive and executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre suggested the best solution to the slaughter of children in a classroom was not meaningful gun control, but still more guns. Guns for all; guns everywhere.

The gun debate in the United States is essentially a conflict between those who fear being shot and those who fear being unable to shoot back. Gun sales spike after mass shootings and terror attacks not only because buyers are rushing to get theirs before a ban, but out of simple fear: if they can get you at a concert, you're not safe anywhere, so you'd better go armed. And as David Frum has pointed out in The Atlantic, the legislative response to mass shootings has been less gun control. Each mass public shooting brings fresh perverse results.

In light of the waking nightmare that is American politics under Donald Trump, in light of armed militia marching at Charlottesville and the NRA dog-whistling its members to prepare for civil war against "the violent left," the fear of being unable to shoot back can only sell more rifles. Some far-right blogs insist a civil war, instigated by the left, is already under way. Fringe media insist that the Las Vegas massacre was an attack by Antifa on country-music-loving Trump supporters, or a left-wing false-flag operation.

Thankfully, the right-wing fringe is tiny; less salubriously, it is well armed. And it will continue to arm itself until the country's leaders, or some adults who replace them, step up to solve the problem.