WHY AMERICA LOVES GUNS
Following Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, there are mutterings that ‘something needs to be done’ about US gun laws. But at ‘Nevada’s premier gun store’, business remains brisk
It was approaching 10pm on a warm Sunday night, and Paola Bastista was doing what she likes best: enjoying country music at one of the final outdoor music festivals of the summer.
Country star Jason Aldean had just taken to the stage, and her sister Daisy had gone to get drinks. A few minutes later she heard what she thought were fireworks and texted Daisy: “Let’s take off – I don’t want to stay for the fireworks.” Her sister replied: “I’m on my way.”
What happened next will stay with Paola forever. All at once people started falling around her, as carnage erupted. The trickle of gunshots became a cacophony, mingled with screams, as people started running to the exit gates to escape the storm of gunfire raining down.
As Paola rushed towards the gate, a woman behind her pushed her to the ground. She turned around to yell at her, but stopped. The woman was slumped over. “I realised she had been gunned down. She had taken five shots. I felt a numb pain in my upper arm.”
But there was no time to stop. A man swept her up and helped her run to a metal stairs where they hid. She saw her sister in the open and started screaming at her to run for cover. Daisy ran towards her. As the gunfire stopped they made a run for it.
But, like a bad dream, the shots erupted again, taunting and terrifying the crowd. “He was shooting at the people who were running. I thought I was going to die,” she recalls from her bed in the Sunrise Hospital.
Another man, Austin, helped Paola and her sister, bundling them into a parked van. For three hours they stayed barricaded inside, listening to the sounds of people screaming. Austin tended to her wound. A bullet was lodged in her shoulder and she was bleeding profusely.
“My sister had a bandage on her leg, so he told her to take that off, and with a sock he bandaged it up and stopped the bleeding.”
Once it was quiet outside, Austin called 911. It took police some time to locate them. “I didn’t care. If the police couldn’t find us it means that he couldn’t find us,” she says of the gunman.
The three were finally transported by ambulance to Sunrise Hospital where they entered an emergency room filled with dozens of injured people, some who would not survive.
Lying in her hospital bed three days after surgery, Paola feels lucky to be alive. “I thank God that I made it. Those shots were directly at me. They were for me. I know it. But I only got one. If that woman had not pushed me . . .” she trails off.
Does she know if the woman survived? She pauses. “I’m hoping she made it, but, I’m not going to lie to you . . . I did not see her move. She was not moving.”
Nevada’s ‘premier gun store’
It was a regular Thursday night in Las Vegas when Stephen Paddock checked into the Mandalay Bay hotel on the south end of the famous Las Vegas Boulevard.
Well known to casino owners, particul arly i n Nevada’s capital Reno, t he 64- year- old former accountant often spent hours at slot machines where he would gamble tens of thousands of dollars.
He regularly visited Las Vegas, driving the 80 miles from his home in Mesquite to gamble and spend a night or two at one of the city’s many hotels.
But this time would be different. Having transported 23 weapons to his hotel suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, just after 10pm on Sunday he smashed through two windows with a hammer and opened fire. When swat teams broke into the suite, he was already dead, surrounded by weapons, cameras and his own blood.
The violent events of October 1st have shocked the city of Las Vegas and once again made an issue of gun crime in the United States, whose approach to gun ownership many non-Americans find both bewildering and frightening.
The revelations that police seized 43 weapons belonging to the attacker – all of which were acquired legally – have prompted urgent questions about the laws governing gun ownership in the US.
Paddock, whose home had a “gun room” that he liked to show visitors, acquired those weapons in four states: Nevada, Utah, Texas and California.
One of the stores he visited was the New Frontier Armory in Las Vegas. Located in the northern suburbs of the city, about 15 miles from where Sunday’s atrocity took place, the shop prides itself on being Nevada’s “premier gun store”.
As I walk in the door, passing through the dark reflective glass outside, I find myself in pleasant, brightly-lit surroundings. Instantly it reminds me of a music store, the kind where helpful shop staff allow customers to play the guitars or bassoons. Except this time people are trying out semi- automatic machine guns and rifles, as the staff look on.
A friendly assistant asks if I need help. I tell him I’m a journalist and he politely says that the manager is not present, but that I’m welcome to look around.
The store has hundreds of weapons on display. Laid out in glass cabinets is a selection of handguns and pistols – starting at around $250 – including some in pink, presumably aimed at female customers. On the wall behind the counter are rows of semi-automatic machine guns and assault weapons with price tags of $ 1,500 upwards.
The mood in the shop is serene, as customers chat to the assistants about the latest models available.
Most of the customers are young white men. But one woman is there with her boyfriend. As we chat she tells me that she doesn’t own a gun, but her boyfriend has several. “I’m not that into guns, but it’s important to him. I don’t mind him carrying them. It’s all about trust. I know him, and I know he’s responsible.”
What does she think of the events of the past few days? “It’s awful,” she says, “but I don’t think there is anything anyone could have done. There are always crazy people out there.”
It’s a familiar refrain. Here in Nevada people have tried to make sense of the carnage that unfolded in their city on Sunday. But you won’t find many people discussing gun control. Though politically Nevada is a “purple state” that tends to switch between Republican and Democrat in presi- dential elections, attachment to gun rights is deeply entrenched.
The state has several machine-gun ranges and some of the most relaxed laws on gun ownership in the US. Although the state voted last year to mandate background checks for all firearm purchases, it has yet to be implemented.
‘Now is not the time’
Over coffee and muffins in a nearby diner I chat to Bill and Dixie, long-time Las Vegas residents. Like everyone here they are shocked at what happened on Sunday night. Their son and son-in-law work in casinos and in the security industry downtown.
Bill owns four guns, he tells me. He has a gun licence from Utah, which allows him to lawfully own his weapons in more than 30 states. But while he supports gun rights, the latest mass shooting has made him think.
“Look, it’s the old story. It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people,” says Bill. “This guy had a pilot’s license, for example, so he could have easily crashed a plane into a building or even a truck if he wanted to. But I do think it is a problem that no one noticed he had accumulated so many weapons.
“Why does a guy need so many weapons? Maybe something needs to be done.”
The possibility of some legislative move to try and prevent the kind of massacre that unfolded in Las Vegas this week has been gaining traction in recent days.
In the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, pro- gun groups such as the National Rifle Association have maintained a strategic silence, and Republican members of congress have repeated that “now is not the time” to discuss gun regulations.
But revelations that Paddock used “bump stocks” – devices attached to semi-automatic weapons to mimic the capacity of fully automatic weapons – have prompted senior Republicans to consider outlawing them. The NRA has also gave cautious backing to new rules on so-called “rapid-fire” tools.
These devices, which can be bought for as little as $ 100, have emerged in the online and retail gun scene in recent years, essentially allowing owners to bypass the rules restricting the sale of automatic weapons.
House speaker Paul Ryan, a gun owner and one of the many Republican members of Congress to receive donations from the NRA, has pledged to look into the issue. The move has been welcomed by anti-gun campaigners as a rare concession by the gun lobby and its supporters.
But any wider move to overturn America’s liberal gun laws remains unlikely.
The right to bear arms is enshrined in the second amendment to the US constitution – though anti- gun campaigners point out that this does not allow for unqualified, uncontrolled rights. The landmark 2008 District of Columbia V Heller case found that the second amendment should not be construed as conferring a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose”.
Despite the apparent sanctity of the second amendment, the past few decades have witnessed some significant progress in reforming gun legislation while keeping within constitutional parameters. When he was president, Bill Clinton introduced an assault weapons ban in 1994, though it was not renewed by Congress when it expired in 2004.
Following the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, and facing an unco-operative Congress, president Barack Obama introduced various changes to federal gun legislation through executive orders, though president Trump has revoked some of those including a proposal making it harder for people with mental illnesses to purchase a gun.
Equally significantly, various states have introduced laws to tighten gun regulation.
Nonetheless, blatant gaps in the regulatory system remain, including an absence of a database to monitor gun ownership.
While gun ownership per person is falling – between 35 and 40 per cent of Americans are estimated to own a gun – gun purchases continue to climb, as existing gun owners purchase more weapons. This trend was brutally encapsulated by Stephen Paddock, who accumulated his arsenal of weapons over decades.
As Las Vegas joins Orlando ( 2016), Sandy Hook (2012) and Columbine (1999) as the latest in a long list of places that will forever be associated with mass shootings, the future of gun legislation is likely to be determined by politicians in Congress and in state legislatures.
But ultimately politicians reflect the society that elects them. A survey last October by Gallup found that the percentage of Americans who want to ban assault rifles had fallen to 36 per cent, down from 44 per cent four years earlier.
Changing gun laws in a society that still clings to the mythology of the gun and the right of the individual to bear arms will not be easy.
As Obama said in 2014, “If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.”
People scramble for shelter at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas after gun fire was heard. Police seized 43 weapons belonging to the attacker, Stephen Paddock (below), who bought guns in four states including, allegedly, in Guns and Guitars.