Last week I joined tens of thousands of people at the Life Is Beautiful music festival in Las Vegas. It was, as the name suggests, a beautiful event. With stages, vendors and bars nestled among hotels, shops and apartments in a usually quiet downtown precinct of the infamous Sin City, the three-day festival was in stark contrast to the neon decadence of the Strip, the glittering hotel towers and sky-piercing spotlights just a short cab ride away.
Wandering lazily around the grounds, young women in Bohemian garb blew bubbles from cheap children's party bags; the smell of (recently legalised) marijuana filled the air alongside music from some of the world's biggest artists -- Lorde, Blink 182, Gorillaz, Chance The Rapper. And, weirdly for Vegas, there was nary a poker table or slot machine to be seen.
Friends took happy snaps riding atop giant wooden butterflies, or ambled through an old motel converted into an art space by an Arizona creative collective, each room taken over by zany paintwork or bizarre installations or laser light shows.
I've been to dozens of music festivals across three continents. Life Is Beautiful was without doubt one of the most joyous and peaceful I've attended.
Being even tenuously connected to the events at the Route 91 festival, and realising it from thousands of kilometres away at home in Australia, opened my eyes to what Americans must feel on a daily basis. And it's not a nice feeling.
Four days after I got home from my trip, Stephen Paddock smashed out windows in his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, just a few miles south of the Life Is Beautiful site, and sprayed hundreds of rounds of ammunition into dancing crowds at the Route 91 festival below. He killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds more. Two days later, we learned Life Is Beautiful may have been his original target.
Former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly wrote in a blog post on Monday that such massacres are "the price of freedom" in America, as though there was some sadistic and twisted shopkeeper selling packets of freedom in exchange for bullets, bodies and blood.
This is not an economic argument, or at least not one that makes sense. Here in Australia, we've shown the world that freedom does not have to come at the expense of innocent civilians caught in crossfire.
There is an odd sort of smugness uniquely found in Australia following a shooting in the United States. Australia has strong gun control laws which are held up internationally as an example of how such regulations can halt firearm-related deaths, and we love to talk about them.
From any number of social media posts all the way up to the Prime Minister, from satirical news sources to this very website, Australians spruik our tight gun laws and our track record -- zero mass shootings since the Howard-era changes in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre -- when American politicians and gunlovers inevitably respond to tragedy with thoughts, prayers and the resolute affirmation that nothing, no law nor regulation nor extra safeguard could possibly have prevented 10 or 20 or 50 people from being shot dead in the only country in the world where this happens on a regular basis.
I was one of them. I'm a prolific tweeter, and in the hours after the full scale of Paddock's massacre became horribly apparent I retweeted a number of posts praising Australia's gun control measures and calling for the U.S. to take action. On Wednesday I even tweeted "Maybe it's just me but I prefer the right "not to be murdered just because I went to a concert", in response to a claim from Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan that current moves to make it easier for people to buy guns was about "protecting people's rights".
Maybe it's just me but I prefer the right "not to be murdered just because I went to a concert" https://t.co/36CzUsROu3— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) October 3, 2017
About an hour later, I read The Daily Beast's story about Paddock potentially having planned to target Life Is Beautiful. It made me think about what I'd tweeted earlier.
Living in Australia, we simply don't have to worry about gun violence. It's not a danger anyone would normally consider or factor into their everyday decision-making. We don't have to think about the odd lump in someone's pocket or hip in the queue for the nightclub, or line up to be scanned by metal detectors on the way into school or university, or surreptitiously scan a movie theatre for the nearest exit in the event of a shooting, or wonder if the music festival we've been looking forward to for months will be targeted by a lone gunman.
I post something about Australia every time. But this is for those who say gun control doesn't work... https://t.co/jqmLgOmXu4— John Legend (@johnlegend) October 2, 2017
We enjoy the right "not to be murdered just because I went to a concert", whereas in America, that right basically doesn't exist. As long as horrific massacres keep occurring without substantial action on gun control -- as long as 59 people can be killed and more than 500 wounded in Las Vegas, or 20 children and six adults can be killed in Sandy Hook, or 49 people can be gunned down in an Orlando nightclub -- Americans simply do not have the same rights that Australians do.
In the 'land of the free and the home of the brave', it takes a certain amount of bravery to put yourself in a crowd and therefore expose yourself to the small risk that you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that your name will be added to a tribute wall or morgue list.
I've never been involved in a mass casualty incident. Never known anyone who has. There would probably be six degrees of separation between me and anyone involved in an event anywhere close to what happened in Las Vegas. But being even tenuously connected to the events at the Route 91 festival, and realising it from thousands of kilometres away at home in Australia, opened my eyes to what Americans must feel on a daily basis.
And it's not a nice feeling.
But the strangest part is, I don't think Americans really think it strange. They don't cower in fear before opening the front door, or jump in fright at every loud bang or suspicious pocket bulge. They get out and they live their lives, they enjoy themselves, they go about their daily activities and have fun. The people at Life Is Beautiful did, and the people at Route 91 did too. It is their 'normal', just as a life free from even the thought of gun violence is mine, and the two worlds only collide through chance encounters and sliding doors moments like this.
Bill O'Reilly was roundly castigated for suggesting that such massacres are simply "the price of freedom" in America. That price, the bullet-riddled bodies of dozens of Americans, is simply too high a price to keep paying.