Another mass shooting, and this one quickly gets billed as the deadliest in modern US history. As the news breaks, the citizen-as-detective goes through a now-routine mental checklist.
What’s the age, ethnicity, religion, skin color, immigration status of the suspect? Do the victims seem randomly selected or specifically targeted by race, religion, or sexual identity? What was the weapon of choice and how was it obtained?
In this case, the shooter turns out to be Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man who lived in an upscale retirement community in Mesquite, Nev. “He was just a guy,” Eric Paddock told the Daily Mail, hours after his brother was identified as the man who killed at least 59 people and wounded more than 500 at a country musical festival in Las Vegas.
“Just a guy” holed up with several rifles in the Las Vegas hotel room he checked into with one apparent mission: to take down as many people as possible. Paddock’s tally of murdered innocents exceeds the 49 people killed when a gunman in Orlando said to be inspired by the Islamic State opened fire inside a crowded nightclub. That guarantees him top billing, for the moment, in the mass shooting history books.
“He has no political affiliation, no religious affiliation, as far as we know,” insisted his brother. Time, of course, will tell on that. Investigators will work to connect any dots of anger, resentment, and motive. At first blush, Paddock seemed quite ordinary. He was a licensed hunter and pilot, with no criminal record or other distinguishing characteristic that would fit the profile of potential mass murderer. However, he made several large gambling transactions in recent weeks, according to media reports. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, but provided no immediate evidence. Law enforcement authorities said Paddock acted alone, and had no known links to terrorist organizations.
But the citizen-detective looks for patterns and clues. Is there something about Paddock’s age and standing in life that led him to that room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino? In June, James T. Hodgkinson, 66, fired an automatic rifle at Republican lawmakers who were wrapping up practice at a baseball field in Alexandria. House majority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was severely wounded, and four others were injured. Hodgkinson was described as a Bernie Sanders supporter with anger management issues and money problems.
It takes a political angle and quite a lot of carnage to command our attention. A church shooting a week ago in Nashville, Tenn., which killed one woman and left a half dozen wounded, barely penetrated the national consciousness. An usher’s brave effort to stop the 25-year-old black man accused of carrying out the attack generated modest media coverage, as did the note the shooter left behind, referring to the church massacre carried out by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.
But when 59 people die, and the cause is not war or natural disaster, but one man’s decision to spray bullets from a hotel overlooking the Las Vegas Strip, we pay attention. At least for the period of time when our Monday morning coffee is interrupted by horrifying video.
Via tweet, President Trump extended his “warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families.” In a televised statement, Trump called Paddock’s attack “an act of pure evil.” Congressional Democrats immediately revived their demand for more gun control measures. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut issued a statement saying “the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference” and called for Congress to “get off its ass and do something.” Nevada does not require residents to obtain a permit, register, or license for handguns, rifles or shotguns, Salon reported. There’s no mandatory waiting, and no magazine capacity limit for assault rifles.
Debate over these gun policies will break down along the usual partisan lines. No one will budge, and nothing will change. So we are left with this reality. At some point, “just a guy” like Stephen Paddock can decide to gather his weapons and slaughter as many fellow humans as possible. We can try to figure out why. But there’s not enough will to try to stop him.