Skip to main content

The Las Vegas Shooting Isn't Just About Gun Laws—It's About Gun Culture

Perhaps the ubiquity of firearms has made us less vigilant to the threats that lax protections pose.
Mourners light candles during a vigil in Las Vegas, Nevada, held on October 2nd, 2017.

Mourners light candles during a vigil in Las Vegas, Nevada, held on October 2nd, 2017, for the victims of Sunday night's mass shooting.

On Sunday night, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock murdered at least 59 people and injured 527 others at a country music festival, all from the comfort of his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

When law enforcement raided Paddock's room, officers found a stockpile of weapons that included at least 19 AR-15-style assault rifles, one handgun, and "hundreds" of rounds of ammunition, according to Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo. In addition, the New York Times reports that officers found two rifles with high-powered scopes "mounted on tripods and positioned in front of the two windows in the hotel room." An undisclosed amount of ammonium nitrate was also found in Paddock's car in the Mandalay Bay parking lot. And, in a search of Paddock's home in Mesquite, Nevada, police reportedly found another cache of guns, ammo, and explosives.

As reporters now scramble to gather more information on Paddock, it's important to note that Nevada is a state with a gun culture that was described by Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Steve Gomez as being akin to "the wild, wild West."

Nevada's gun laws are among the most relaxed in the country, with no permit, registration, or license required for rifles and handguns, and no prohibition on open carry, according to the National Rifle Association. As USA Today notes, concealed weapons are totally legitimate in Nevada so long as you have a permit, and you can even pick up machine guns and suppressors prohibited in other states so long as they're in compliance with the federal National Firearms Act. These loose restrictions matter when it comes to gun violence: According to NRA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by National Journal in 2015, states with the most gun laws see the fewest gun-related deaths.

But recent research should caution that public policy isn't the only factor that shapes gun violence in the United States. Compare Nevada to Virginia, where the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 left 32 people dead: Despite having remarkably similar legal environments that govern firearms, Nevada ranks 15th in the nation with 15 gun deaths for every 100,000 citizens, well above the U.S. average of 11.1; Virginia ranks just below, at 10.9. In that same vein, a 2016 examination of Australia's famous 1996 gun laws and subsequent decline in gun deaths, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that the regulatory environment doesn't tell the complete story about gun violence in a given area. "There's always other stuff going on," Jesse Singal observed in New York. "Even as you tweak one variable of interest—in this case, Australia's gun laws—there are a zillion other things constantly changing that also affect the outcome of interest: the rate of violent deaths."

It might be worth considering the culture surrounding firearms. A National Opinion Research Center examination of data taken from the National Gun Policy Survey, the General Social Survey, and the National Network of State Polls revealed that Virginians were more likely to hold skeptical, wary (and, therefore, responsible) attitudes toward firearms than, say, Nevadans.

We can see this lax culture evident in accounts of how Paddock managed to get his arsenal into the Mandalay Bay in the first place. While Mandalay Bay prohibits guns from its premises (a ban it must explicitly state, since guns aren't legally prohibited from casino floors), reports suggest there was very lax security when Paddock, a frequent visitor to the hotel, checked in on September 28th with 10 large black suitcases, and subsequently evaded security and housekeeping during the days before the massacre.

And Mandalay Bay's weak security apparatus may not be so out of the ordinary: One law firm notes that "many casinos regulate concealed weapons using sight-security only, potentially allowing many guns to pass by without noticing." University of California–Los Angeles professor Adam Winkler was even more ominous when speaking about hotel security with Fox News: "Most hotels in the United States do not have metal detectors," he said. "Anyone can walk into a hotel with firearms without being detected. Firearms in a suitcase would also easily get past any hotel security."

In the case of Stephen Paddock, it appears that perhaps the ubiquity of firearms, rather than sharpening our senses, has made us less vigilant to the threats that lax protections pose. We frequently foil the terror attacks that have been subject to so much scrutiny since 9/11, but in states like Nevada, where guns are so deeply embedded in the "wild West" culture, we rarely see the threat.