By the time police reached the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock had killed at least 58 people and wounded more than 500. On entering his room they found several assault weapons on the floor. From the rhythm of his shooting he may have methodically emptied the magazine of each one, or paused with his favourite to reload.
Nothing in federal or Nevada state law could have stopped him. Paddock was free to check into the hotel carrying assault weapons in plain sight. He was free to buy as much ammunition as he liked, with no permit or background checks.
The massacre was “a tragic and heinous act of violence”, Nevada’s governor, the Republican Brain Sandoval, said. It is another tragedy that in 2013 Sandoval vetoed a state law that would have made background checks mandatory for private gun sales and might-just might-have limited the scale of Paddock’s arsenal.
It is clear to any reasonable observer that the US needs sensible gun-control laws, yet the country’s legislators have proved as impervious to the advice of outsiders as to the lessons of their bloodstained history. It has famously and accurately been noted that more Americans have died from guns in their own country since 1968 (1.51 million deaths) than in all America’s wars, including the Civil War (1.39m). The number of mass shootings has risen steadily since 2000 and exponentially since 2008, and they have become more deadly. The shooting of 49 revellers in an Orlando nightclub last year runs the Las Vegas shooting a close second as the deadliest in American history.
Asked about Paddock’s “belief system”, Joseph Lombardo, the Las Vegas sheriff, said that he had no idea. The term flatters the mental state of any gunman by the time he pulls the trigger. Each year thousands of Americans buy assault weapons who should never be allowed near them. Hundreds die as a direct result; thousands when small-arms fire is taken into account; tens of thousands when suicides are included. On average, according to the Brady Campaign for firearms controls, gun violence kills 93 people in America each day. Yet its democracy is in many respects highly responsive. It has achieved great things for its own people.
America’s blind spot. A Pew survey in 2015, a year of more than 40 mass shootings, found that 80 per cent of votes backed laws to prevent the mentally ill buying guns and 70pc supported a national gun owners’ database. The reason that neither exist is wearyingly familiar. They include the disproportionate power of rural states in the US Senate; the excessive influence of the gun lobby in the House of Representatives; and a prevailing interpretation of the constitutional right to bear arms that ignores the passing of time and defies common sense.
America’s failure to ban or even control the sale of semi-automatic weapons to civilians is tragedy beyond words. It is a failure of democracy. Experience suggests that the chances of an assault-weapons ban are close to zero even now, but it is still the right goal for Congress and the White House to pursue.