NEW YORK — From his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock would have looked down upon a crowd of more than 20,000 people, surging to the final sets of a country music festival.
He opened fire late Sunday, killing at least 59 people and injuring 527 others in one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history, authorities said.
But what may have seemed like a difficult feat, firing across an urban area and into a crowd from about 500 yards away — the equivalent of several football fields — appears to have been offset by Paddock’s preparations, which made it possible for him to inflict mass carnage.
Law enforcement officials cautioned that their information remained preliminary amid a rapidly unfolding investigation, and it was at times contradictory. But officials said Paddock established firing positions by smashing a pair of windows in his hotel room. He was armed with at least 17 firearms, authorities said, including rifles designed to be fired at such distances. He was also perched from a vantage point that increased the likelihood that even errant shots were more likely to strike someone than had he fired them from ground level.
Among his weapons, a law enforcement official said, were AR-15-style rifles, a civilian variant of a standard service rifle used by the US military for more than a half-century.
The possibility that Paddock used tripods, which two law enforcement officials said were in the room, indicates that he understood how to overcome some of the difficulties of his plan. Special mounts designed to fit the underside of a rifle and sit atop camera tripods allow the gunman to fire more accurately while standing.
These preparations, along with the downward angle of Paddock’s gunfire and the density of concertgoers, would make the shooting more lethal than it might otherwise have been, and more difficult to counter or escape.
When the gunshots started, videos showed, those in front of the stage dropped to their stomachs — often an adequate first measure when under fire. But on Sunday night, the decision potentially put them at greater risk.
Paddock’s position overhead gave him a vantage point over objects and obstacles that would typically protect people from bullets flying from a gunman at ground level. It also meant that inaccurate shots — the sort common to rapid or hurried fire, which typically sail high or strike the ground short — could still plunge into areas where people were huddled.
Audio recordings of the shooting suggest that at least one of Paddock’s weapons fired automatically, discharging multiple bullets with a single depression of a trigger, in what are commonly called bursts.
Weapons capable of burst fire have long been federally regulated in the United States and are more difficult to obtain than weapons that fire semi-automatically, for which regulations vary by state. Two of the guns Paddock had with him were modified to make them fully automatic, according to two US officials who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
Paddock had purchased some guns in Arizona, according to a gun seller there who spoke with authorities.
Several pounds of a nonflammable exploding target used for practice were recovered from Paddock’s home in Mesquite, about an hour outside Las Vegas, said Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of Clark County.
The length of the bursts indicate that Paddock had magazines capable of holding scores of rounds, allowing him to fire longer without reloading.
Nevada, unlike some states, has no laws limiting ammunition magazine capacities, meaning the shooter could have purchased equipment locally that could hold scores of rounds, allowing him to fire longer without reloading.
Ownership of automatic guns is legal, so long as they were made before May 1986 and are registered with the federal government.
If an automatic weapon, also called a machine gun, was made or imported after 1986, it may be legally owned only by licensed dealers, police, and the military.
Semiautomatic guns, which fire only once for each trigger pull, may not be legally modified to automatic.Material from the Washington Post was included in this report.