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Commentary: Country artists have the ear of American gun culture. They need to speak up.

A pair of cowboy boots is shown in the street outside the concert venue after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

Country music aspires to tell the story of real life in America, but American life continues to feel unreal.

On Monday morning, our nation awoke to news that more than 50 country music fans were killed when a gunman opened fire at a concert in Las Vegas while Jason Aldean sang "When She Says Baby." It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. For now. Time and again, we've seen our lawmakers respond to these exceedingly lethal events with thoughts, prayers and little action - which means right now would be a fine time for Nashville's biggest stars to speak up on behalf of the American lives they're singing about.

If you think that country music doesn't have any influence over American gun culture, check out the website of NRA Country, an extension of the National Rifle Association that endeavors to strengthen the gun lobby through partnerships with the country music industry. The banner across the top of the site encourages visitors to "celebrate the lifestyle," and the initiative's "featured artists" include Lee Brice, Craig Campbell, Luke Combs, Easton Corbin, Florida Georgia Line, LOCASH, Justin Moore, Jon Pardi, Thomas Rhett, Chase Rice, Granger Smith, Sunny Sweeney, Aaron Watson, Gretchen Wilson and others. In 2010, an NRA official said that the goal of NRA Country was to present the "softer side" of the gun lobby.

Many of the artists affiliated with NRA Country have vented their sadness over the Las Vegas shooting on social media, including Tyler Farr, who tweeted, "Didn't expect to wake up to see this, this morning. Prayers out to everyone affected by this tragic event in Las Vegas."

But what happens after the disbelief? Will he - or any of the other acts associated with NRA Country - detach themselves from an organization that aggressively lobbies to allow semiautomatic weapons to remain in the hands of the American public?

It's hard to anticipate what happens next, considering most contemporary country musicians remain allergic to politics. Taking a stand on an issue comes with the risk of alienating a potential fan; so much so, that even the mainstream's more socially outspoken artists - Tim McGraw, Sam Hunt - still seem to be walking on tiptoe whenever they raise their voices.

Because the repercussions are real. Everyone remembers what happened to the Dixie Chicks after the group publicly expressed its disappointment in George W. Bush way, way back in 2003. The conservative backlash was noisy, then poof - silence. One of the most colossal acts in the business was instantly banned from the country airwaves. Instead of fostering a public discussion about the real-life goings-on of our democracy, the gatekeepers of country radio swiftly shut it down.

But what if this is something different? What if country singers - those empathetic keepers of human truth - finally admitted that the line that separates our politics from our everyday lives does not, in fact, exist?

What if, instead of partnering with the NRA, country artists assembled to speak out against it? What if Kelsea Ballerini, Luke Bryan, Charles Kelley, Maren Morris, Jake Owen, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and every other country star who expressed their sorrow and sickness over these lost lives decided to link arms? What if they chose to speak out against an organization that relentlessly campaigns to maintain the public's access to deadly firepower.

These singers know how to soften hearts. Together, they could open minds. The radio couldn't boycott them all.

Writer Chris Richards is The Washington Post's pop music critic.

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