It was the last day of the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas last Sunday when a lone gunman, now identified as Stephen Paddock, opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. What followed was the deadliest mass shooting in modern memory, and a tragedy that continues to reverberate across the state and across the country
Now though, as things return to normal, the questions are starting. How could this have been prevented? So far, what information police have discovered about the shooter has yet to prove a motive. Even so, as is the case after every mass shooting, the push for reform has already begun.
But what does reform look like?
The way Nevada handles guns and gun rights might seem fairly lax, especially compared to states like neighboring California. However, barring the Golden State and places like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., very few parts of the U.S. have particularly strict laws for guns.
Open carry is generally legal throughout the state for both long guns and handguns, though there are some rules that govern loaded guns in vehicles. In most circumstances, it’s legal to have your gun visible on your person. Just don’t go waving it around, because brandishing that gun is still very illegal.
Concealed carry is also legal in Nevada, which is a “shall issue” state. As long as someone meets the necessary criteria for a concealed weapons permit, the state will issue that person a permit (which is different from a “may issue” state, which still has some discretion to deny a permit even if someone checks all the right boxes).
Neither of these laws are likely to change anytime soon, especially considering that neither had much to do with how Paddock carried out his crime and the fact that Nevada’s gun culture is deeply rooted in both rural and urban state politics.
However, there is also the question of background checks, and thus the question of enforcement on Question 1 — a ballot measure from last year that would have required federal background checks on private gun sales. While voters approved the measure by the slimmest of margins (just 50.45 percent voted “yes”) in 2016, it’s been left in legal limbo since the start of this year when the FBI refused to conduct any extra background checks.
In stating their decision, the FBI said a state could not tell them how to spend federal dollars and suggested using a state-run background check system, the Criminal History Repository, instead.
But Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt countered that such a move would violate the language of the ballot measure, which called explicitly for the use of the FBI’s background checks (mainly in an effort to avoid draining any money from state coffers for a measure sure to be controversial without the need to spend extra money). The measure was deemed “unenforceable” and has been mothballed ever since.
And while there may be a lawsuit soon by Question 1 proponents aimed at forcing the state to enforce the new rules, it’s difficult to say so early on whether or not such a suit would actually change how the state handles the rules, if at all.
What’s more is that any change to state law would need to be crafted through a legislative session, and there won’t be another one of those until 2019. And while it is possible for the governor or two-thirds of the legislature to call a special session, a Republican governor and too-slim Democratic legislative majorities make the move less-than-likely.
There are also some lingering questions over the effectiveness of state and local-level gun controls, especially in places like Chicago (which, despite strong gun laws, maintains one of the highest murder rates in the nation). A report from NPR found that even the strongest gun laws can be undercut if surrounding states make guns easier to obtain, and is to say nothing of the fact that it can be extremely difficult to quantify the number of crimes not committed because of certain laws.
So what about Capitol Hill?
While there was some early skepticism that a Republican-controlled Congress would budge on any kind of gun legislation, it now appears that there could be enough support for a ban — or at least regulation — of so-called bump stocks.
Bump stocks are modified stocks (the part of a long gun that rests against the shoulder) that harness a gun’s recoil in order to increase the fire rate. As the gun moves back, it “bumps” against the stock and back into the trigger finger, allowing a fire rate close to that of a fully automatic weapon.
This is crucial for two reasons: the first is that the bump-fire stock likely made Paddock’s shooting deadlier than it would have been otherwise by virtue of the fact he was shooting more rounds with this method than he would’ve with an unmodified semi-automatic weapon.
Second, while not technically illegal, fully automatic weapons themselves are fairly hard to come by because of both a 1986 ban and the National Firearms Act of 1934. The latter, drafted in the days of Al Capone and Tommy guns, placed a $200 tax on the sale and transfer of automatic weapon (a prohibitively expensive price in the deepest days of the Great Depression). While that $200 tax has never been changed, the Firearms Owners Protection Act banned the consumer purchase of any automatic weapons made after 1986.
With their powers combined, it means that, while not impossible, it would have been unlikely that Paddock could acquire the same kind of firepower that he eventually used.
All of Nevada’s congressional Democrats have thrown their weight behind a House ban on bump stocks, including Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who sponsored the bill along with Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.
“The victims and families in Las Vegas don’t need an explanation about the difference between machine guns and firearms with bump stocks. They need action,” Titus said in a statement. “I am introducing this legislation in hopes of closing this dangerous loophole and ensuring that civilians cannot modify their guns to fire nine bullets per second. This is the least that we can do.”
However, while there have been rumblings from Congressional Republicans and even the National Rifle Association about support for regulation or a ban of bump stocks, there’s yet to be any action on the part of GOP leaders — and only time can tell if that might change.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @NevadaSagebrush.