The mass shooting in Nevada was the deadliest in US history, with at least 59 deaths (including the shooter). It was clearly premeditated, but others didn't seem to know about it. His family didn't even know he was into guns.
There is still a lot we don't know, including the motive.
I have found that good problem solving requires understanding the roots of a problem. I have done some investigating to present some facts that will both help us better understand the problem and potentially solve it in a way that is politically feasible.
Facts that Are Relevant to This Case
- The shooter stockpiled dozens of weapons and had 23 in his hotel suite the night of the attack
- Many of these appear to be either assault weapons (semi-automatic) or fully automatic rifles--unfortunately it is not clear to me and one cannot tell by photos alone
- There were also many high-capacity magazines stacked in corners
- However it is clear from the video footage that the rate of fire was far too high for a semi-automatic weapon
- The police have reported that at least a dozen rifles had a "bump stock," which is a modification to a rifle that can increase its rate of fire substantially, getting closer to an automatic rifle
- These are legal to buy because they aren't technically weapon modifications
- He probably did not have fully-automatic (as purchased) weapons, in part because...
- Automatic weapons are highly regulated and really hard to get if you're a civilian, and very rare
- Without the modifications, the rifles (even though they look like machine guns) would fire at the rate of any other hunting rifle, and the muzzle velocity would be the same
- At least 50 of his guns were purchased legally
So why didn't anyone see this coming?
- He was not on the FBI's radar so his background checks were clean
- The ATF did not get any alerts, because apparently they only get alerts when two or more handguns are purchased at the same time
- Nevada does not require registration nor restrict the number of guns an individual can own
What Could be Done That is Politically Feasible
There are a few factors that made this so deadly:
- The number of weapons (meaning he could swap out weapons as they got hot)
- The bump stocks, which meant far higher rates of fire
- To some extent, the size of the magazines, although a trained owner can change magazines very quickly (and he was shooting for 11 full minutes)
In response to this shooting, much of the noise is either:
- "Ban all guns"
- "Ban all assault weapons and/or high capacity clips"
- "You can pry my gun from my cold dead hands"
Banning all guns is politically infeasible. 8% of the country supports this (such support spikes after a mass shooting but then drops). In Wedged we also discuss the logistical difficulty of doing this and share some case studies of past efforts.
The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban defined an assault weapon as containing at least 2 of the following features:
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Bayonet mount
- Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
- Grenade launcher mount
(The Chisel can tell you more about the different kinds of guns out there)
While it is possible the flash suppressor allowed the shooter to hide for longer, none of these other features made his attack more deadly. If he had used weapons that were not "assault weapons," he would have done just as much damage.
So what could be done?
In this case, the number of guns and the bump stock made a big difference in the deadliness of the attack. What's politically feasible?
The US is split about in half on limiting the number of weapons an individual can have. However, the number of guns becomes far less relevant when you take out the bump stock. The reason for multiple weapons is because they heat up when you fire rounds very quickly. Without the bump stock, the fire rate goes down and having more guns makes very little difference.
And so: what can be done about bump stocks?
Let's assume for now most Americans are fine with fully automatic machine guns being illegal. Might they be fine with banning modifications that turn semi-automatic weapons into something closer to a fully automatic weapon?
Do you believe that focusing on something this specific, factually relevant to the case, and clearly related to its deadliness, is more likely to generate consensus than shouting about the same tired talking points of the last 20 years?
Reconsidering our Problem Definition
In this shooting, 58 people died. It is an incredible tragedy. Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, it brings substantial attention to the raging gun debate.
Those of you who have already read Wedged know where I'm going with this.
The question is, "what problem do we want to solve?" Are deaths by mass shooting substantially worse than those from other shootings? Should we focus on all shooting deaths? Should we separate homicide and suicide? Should we care about all murder and all suicide, or only those with guns? What about other wrongful or premature or unnatural deaths?
Let's get some data here. TheChisel is a really fine source for contextualized data, and it puts together bipartisan teams of experts that spend a lot of time banging heads to get to agreement..
A few bits on gun deaths, from The Chisel:
- 0.3% of firearm homicide victims were killed by a mass shooter (as of 2014)--the other 99.7% were killed in non-mass incidents
- Over 90% of gun homicides were conducted with a handgun
- The US definitely has the highest gun death rate of all developed countries: about 10.5 per 100k, vs about 2 per 100k in the EU
- 62% of these gun deaths are suicides...
- However our suicide rate is comparable to other developed countries and much lower than places like Japan and South Korea, where there are almost no guns
- (A fact from Wedged): if somehow all US gun homicides were erased, the US would still have a higher homicide rate than the EU -- 32% of US homicides don't involve a gun
- 1.5x as many Americans die from accidental poisoning or overdose than die from guns
This data is a start, but it's meant to get you thinking: what's my priority? What do I want to fix? If you believe you have limited resources or political capital, where should you be putting it?
There's no easy answer.
Considering Mass Civilian Violence Elsewhere
We tend to think of terrorist attacks as the other sort of sensational civilian-targeting mass violence besides these "lone wolf" mass shootings. Suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices, and even (more commonly) vehicular attacks make the news and can kill between dozens and hundreds.
These attacks are by far the most common in the Middle East, where Islamist insurgents are fighting asymmetric warfare against governments or remnants of governments. However occasionally Western countries are also attacked.
An interesting question to consider is this: why do Islamist insurgents use explosives rather than guns? In countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and others, fully automatic weapons are prolific. These are certainly used in both combat and civilian slaughter, but explosives are used quite often.
Given that it is easy to acquire automatic weapons, but explosives are still used so often, there is likely something that makes them attractive to use when planning mass civilian slaughter.
It may be the case that explosives are easier to acquire in these countries, and are more effective at killing. If this is the case, the United States may have so few explosive attacks because the materials needed are difficult to come by. Certainly ISIS has been able to raid military bases and thereby acquire substantial explosive material. However there are many ways to create deadly improvised explosives (consider Timothy McVeigh's attack, which killed 168). It is likely some of these chemicals are tracked (I understand that certain fertilizers were regulated after McVeigh's attack), however some experts I have spoken to believe that it is still quite feasible to create large explosives in the US.
In fact, the Las Vegas shooter had substantial amounts of explosives in his car.
Two questions I'll leave you with:
- Why don't those who want to commit mass murder in the US use explosives?
- If somehow all such people had no access to firearms, how likely would they be to begin using explosives instead?