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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Suzanne Lynch

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.

Sec­ond amend­ment

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.”

DAVID IMAGES PHO­TO­GRAPH: BECKER/GETTY

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.

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