“Something broke in his head is the only thing possible,” the brother of the man whose shooting spree in Las Vegas shocked the world told reporters on Monday. “Did he have a stroke? I’m hoping they cut open his brain and find something,” Eric Paddock said of his brother Stephen. “There’s a data point missing.”
But the data from Stephen Paddock’s shooting spree—59 concert-goers dead, 527 injured—won’t even register as statistical background noise in America’s annual gun-death numbers. Every year, Americans shoot and kill at least 11,000 other Americans. What’s another 59 corpses?
A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Medicine comparing the United States with 22 other developed countries revealed that Americans aged 15 to 24 in the United States are 49 times more likely to be shot to death than people in that same age bracket in all those other countries. The American gun homicide rate is 25 times higher. Add up all the gun deaths from those 23 high-income nation states and you find that 82 per cent of the dead are Americans.
The one data point that distinguishes the Las Vegas massacre is that it took only one man to kill 59 people in the space of perhaps 20 minutes, making Sunday night’s atrocity the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, surpassing the previous record set by Omar Mateen’s June 2016 jihad-inspired slaughter of 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Other than that, the dead bodies strewn around the Las Vegas Village and Festival Grounds where the Route 91 Harvest Festival was just wrapping up with Jason Aldean, the event’s final country music act, won’t even come close to being noticeable in America’s gun-death data for 2017.
Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old millionaire real-estate dealer, was by all accounts a not especially pleasant man. He was an incorrigible gambler. Apart from that affliction he was not known to be suffering from any psychotic disorder. He affiliated himself with no religious or political cult. He wasn’t even known to be particularly gun-happy.
Even so, he took pains to assemble 23 firearms in his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where he set up fully automatic AR-15-style assault rifles on two tripods, smashed two windows, and went about his work. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police report that another 19 weapons along with explosives and several thousand rounds of ammunition were recovered at Paddock’s home in Mesquite, a retirement community a short drive from Las Vegas.
Paddock shot himself to death just as a SWAT team was breaking down the door to his room at the Mandalay Bay hotel, becoming another data point among the roughly 20,000 Americans who use a gun to kill themselves ever year. The American homicide and suicide numbers haven’t changed much over the past 20 years. One thing that is changing is the number of American mass shootings and their deadliness.
The Gun Violence Archive, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, has been tracking mass shootings in the United States since the December 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza used an assault rifle to murder 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Defining a mass shooting as a shooting of four or more people, the Gun Violence Archive counts more than 1,500 such events across the United States over the past five years. So far this year: 273 mass shootings.
Over the longer term, mass shootings are becoming more horrific.
In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in Austin and shot and killed 18 people. In 1984, in San Ysidro, California, James Huberty topped Whitman by shooting and killing 21 people at a McDonald’s restaurant. In 1991 in Killeen, Texas, George Hennard killed 23 people in a cafeteria. In 2007, at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Seung-Hui Choi shot and killed 32 people. Then came last year, with Orlando: 49 dead. Now Las Vegas: 59 dead. In between these record-setters: Columbine (13), Sandy Hook (26), Fort Hood (13), Aurora (12), San Bernardino (14), Charleston (nine) and on and on.
You’d think that after each of these atrocities, there would be a spike in support for tighter gun controls, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Americans go out and buy more guns. The number of firearms on the market in the United States has tripled over the past 15 years, and right on cue, after Las Vegas, shares in Sturm Ruger were up four per cent in value on Monday, and Olin’s Winchester brand was up six per cent. After each atrocity, public support for gun control laws either drops a bit, stays the same or continues its long, slow slide.
The Pew Research Centre has tracked public opinion following mass shootings and has found that the tragedies have no discernible effect in shifting American attitudes towards greater controls on firearms possession. If anything, the opposite happens. Back in 2000, 66 per cent of Americans said controls on gun ownership were more important to them than gun ownership rights. By April of this year, the Pew researchers found Americans almost equally divided: 51 per cent for gun control, 47 per cent for gun rights.
According to a recent Harvard and Northeastern University study, there are about 55 million gun owners in the United States, a gun ownership rate that hasn’t changed much since the 1990s—roughly half of the 265 million guns in the United States belong to only three per cent of the population. Guns that are designed for the purpose of killing lots of people—expensive, high-calibre semi-automatic and fully automatic assault rifles, for instance—tend to end up in the hands of people like Stephen Paddock.
“Something broke in his head is the only thing possible,” is how Eric Paddock tried to make sense of his brother, who is now just another infamous and dead American mass murderer.
Something is broken in America, too.
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