Bloodbath in Las Vegas

Print edition : October 27, 2017

People scramble for cover and take away a person injured in the gunfire at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: AFP

Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada, who opened fire on the music festival. Photo: AP

Broken windows are seen on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino from where the gunman opened fire. Photo: DAVID BECKER/AFP

A man with little political connection and no real religious fealty, a high-stakes gambler who enjoyed the high life of Las Vegas hotels and casinos, kills 57 people and wounds several hundred with his bump stock-fitted rifles, but the United States is not attempting to control gun ownership.

EACH day in the United States a mass shooting occurs. The government defines a “mass shooting” as an incident where a gunman kills at least four people. Gun violence in the U.S. is a disease, driven to some extent by the powerful gun industry and its lobby. Attempts to corral gun ownership fail routinely. The U.S. Congress’ Research Service estimates that there are now 300 million guns in the country, one for each American adult. The number of guns per adult has doubled since 1968.

In statistical terms, the event in Las Vegas (Nevada) on October 1 was not unusual. Another mass shooting took place. This time, Stephen Paddock (age 64) built a perch in his lavish room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. He set up cameras outside his room to ensure that he knew what was going on in the corridor. Then he placed his 23 guns near a window, which he broke with a hammer. Paddock used his AR-15 and Kalashnikov rifles to fire at a music concert attended by 20,000 people. The gunfire was first mistaken for fireworks, but then as bodies fell and blood flowed, panic ensued. The concert-goers ran for shelter, unsure from where the gunfire originated. By the time Paddock took his own life in his room, he had killed at least 57 people and wounded over 500. The death toll is likely to rise. It was the 273rd mass shooting of the year.

What motivated Paddock to fire into a crowd of strangers bewilders investigators. No obvious motive has come to light. Paddock had, apparently, little political connection and no real religious fealty. He was a high-stakes gambler who lived in a retirement community but who enjoyed the high life of Las Vegas hotels and casinos. He arrived at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino a few days before the incident with 10 suitcases in tow. These cases contained his arsenal of guns and paraphernalia. It appears, therefore, that Paddock had intended to do this attack long before he spent a few nights in the casinos. That he selected a room with a view of the concert and that he set up cameras outside his room suggest that he knew exactly what he was doing. No criminal record shadowed him. Nothing in his life brought him to the attention of the authorities. That he bought an enormous arsenal of weaponry was not enough to raise an eyebrow. Gun ownership is treated in the U.S. as a form of patriotism.

Gunslinger State

Nevada, where Las Vegas is the main city, prides itself on weak gun regulations. There is no necessity to get a permit to purchase most firearms in the State. Attempts to regulate firearm purchases face resistance from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Republican Governor Brian Sandoval. In 2013, thousands of concerned citizens built a campaign in Nevada to push for universal background checks for firearm purchases. Under immense pressure, the State Senate passed a regulatory Bill, which the Governor vetoed. He would not permit any regulations. Sandoval has been against every attempt to regulate gun sales, helped along by the NRA and by the Attorney General of Nevada, Adam Laxalt.

Since Paddock had no criminal background and seemed to be in good health, it is unlikely that any regulation would have stopped his access to weapons. The police have thus far found 49 guns in his two houses and the hotel room. What strikes many people is not the absence of regulations on gun purchases, but that it is legal in the country to buy semi-automatic assault rifles and it is easy enough to modify these into automatic guns. That is precisely what Paddock had done. He bought the AR-15 and then purchased a $99 bump fire stock. He modified the semi-automatic with the “bump stock” to make it automatic, that is, enable rapid fire. The AR-15, with a bump fire stock, can fire 400 to 800 rounds a minute, which is a deadly amount of lead. For all practical purposes, it is legal to own an automatic rifle, the preferred weapon of mass shootings.

Polls show that after each major mass shooting, the public mood shifts towards gun regulation. Those who vote for Democrats are more likely to favour gun regulation than those who vote Republican. But the typical sentiment after such incidents as the 2013 shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando (Florida) is to do something about gun violence. As weeks go by, the mood will shift to resignation as nothing happens. Almost half the U.S. population believes that gun ownership is fundamental to freedom. This constituency is shaped and encouraged by the gun lobby.

In a throwaway remark before his visit to Las Vegas, President Donald Trump said: “We will be talking about gun laws as time goes by.” This remark is unpredictable and in all likelihood empty of meaning. Trump is not John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister who faced a mass shooting in April 1996 just a month after his coalition government took office. Australia, like the U.S., had a major commitment to gun culture. But Howard’s government, pushed by concerned Australians and long-time advocates of gun regulation, banned automatic and semi-automatic rifles, forced through a national firearms registry and destroyed over half a million guns that the government purchased from civilians. Twenty years later, on the anniversary of the massacre in Port Arthur, Howard said: “It is incontestable that gun-related homicides have fallen quite significantly in Australia, incontestable.” No such disposition exists in the U.S.

One of the old adages is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. This is obviously true, but it is equally clear that the gun helps kill people. Motivations are hard to fathom. If Paddock were a Muslim, matters would be simpler for the U.S. media and for the authorities. They would then be able to easily slot Paddock’s action into a well-defined narrative.

But Paddock is a white man. It was startling to hear police officials say that they are seeking Paddock’s “connections to terrorism”. The action is no longer itself “terrorism”; “terrorism” has come to refer to something that Muslims do.

Paddock’s action was terrorism. He terrorised not only those at the concert but the nation as a whole. It has become easier to do routine surveillance of Muslims in the U.S. than pay attention to those who own dangerous guns and who seem to require no identifiable motive to kill large numbers of people. It is easier in the U.S. to ban Muslims than guns.

None of this helps Hannah Ahlers, Heather Alvarado, Jack Beaton, Sandy Casey, Stacee Etcheber, Sonny Melton, Adrian Murfitt, Jennifer Parks and the others who fell to Paddock’s bullets. These are ordinary people who had come to enjoy three days of music, a small break from their busy lives. Stacee Etcheber was a hairdresser, Adrian Murfitt was a commercial fisherman, and Jennifer Parks was a kindergarten teacher.

It was the last night of the concert. It was the last night of their holiday. Most of them would have gone home the next day to lead their normal lives. They were high on life, excited for the music, delirious under the stars. Then the gunfire came. It took the light out of their eyes.