Viewed from space, Las Vegas is the brightest spot on Earth. On Sunday, a solitary gunman with death on his mind transformed the city into a slaughterhouse. From the window of his suite on the 32nd floor of a hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard, Craig Paddock, a 64-year-old retiree, deluged a crowd of some 22,000 concertgoers with bullets. Bursts of gunfire were interrupted by brief pauses as the shooter reloaded his rifle. By the time he was finished, 59 people were dead and more than 500 injured. Distressing stories of the victims of this heinous act have been emerging over the past 24 hours.
Las Vegas is traumatised and America is once again shrouded in grief. The agony is compounded by the mystery swirling around the killer's motive. Paddock, who turned the gun on himself before the police could capture him, has no prior history of crime. He was a well-heeled white suburban sexagenarian who liked to gamble and was by all accounts an affable individual. What drove him to mass murder? Had Paddock been affiliated with, say, ISIL, the United States would right now be seeking emotional release in bombing campaigns. Influential voices in the US would simultaneously be consoling and provoking the country with clichés.
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But Paddock's profile eludes such comforting classification. His crime was quintessentially American, the latest—and bloodiest—enactment of a homicidal tradition that annually devours more lives than terrorism. More Americans have been killed in gun-related violence in the last 47 years than in all the wars the country has ever fought. There have been more than 1,500 mass shootings since 20 six- and seven-year-olds were gunned down five years ago at an elementary school in Sandy Hook. American culture is so steeped in reverence for guns that the "thoughts and prayers" routine that follows every massacre is never matched by the kind of legislative and constitutional reform that might prevent or at least reduce the frequency of such horrors.
Americans are not unique in becoming unexpectedly deranged and embarking on paths terminally divergent from their character. But America is unique in allowing such individuals access to guns. Paddock purchased sophisticated automatic weapons and rounds of ammunition with the casualness of someone buying furniture: the shop where he stocked up for mass murder is called Guns & Guitars. When police broke into his room, they found 23 guns. His ability to carry them without any apparent difficulty into a hotel can only be fathomed in the context of America's fatally permissive attitude to guns. America can emulate the example of Australia, which successfully dealt with a similar scourge of civilian gun ownership. But it seems unlikely, if history is any guide, that much will change in America's deadly relationship with guns.
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