What is going on in the mind of a mass killer? What does a man think as he stands at the smashed out window of his hotel room, high above a crowd of music festival attendees and opens fire on those men and women, these anonymous strangers, far below? What motivations animate him as, mercilessly, he rains bullets from his carefully modified weapons – modified to become even faster, even more brutal killing machines – on the panicked crowd?
We will likely never know exactly what “inspired” Stephen Paddock last week, as he racked up victims, as he methodically worked his way to infamy – becoming, over the course of several minutes, the perpetrator of the largest mass shooting in modern American history.
None of America’s lax gun control policies made the slightest bit of difference in slowing Paddock’s rampage. They just made it ridiculously easy for him to buy an arsenal, to stockpile ammunition, and to bring his weapons into a hotel room.
At the end of the day, the killers, who, with shocking regularity, now visit mayhem on crowds of people they do not know, each have their own “motivations.” Omar Mateen, in Orlando, was ostensibly a jihadist. Dylann Roof was a white supremacist hoping to spark a racial conflagration. At Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza, an unhappy young man with mental health problems and a troubled relationship with his mother, presumably had his own twisted set of “reasons” for killing young children. At Columbine, the adolescent killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had theirs. So, too, did the shooter of police officers in Dallas in summer 2016. So, too, did the Aurora movie theater killer.
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The reasons behind America’s mass killings vary, from political or religious to teenage alienation, from workplace rage to the fury of jilted lovers. We do not yet have a sense of Paddock’s motivations in Las Vegas, but, one assumes, over time the FBI will build up a personality profile of this purveyor of death and pain. And yet, at the end of the day, all of these announced or deduced reasons are inadequate to our understanding of what occurred and what we can do about it.
Human history is littered with the sorrows caused by embittered people, each with their own “rationale” for why they have to inflict violence on strangers. It seems to be a glitch in our functioning as a species. We will likely never be able to entirely eradicate such acts.
Even in a country as generally calm as Norway, there’s no way to stop the emergence of a psychopathic mass killer such as Anders Breivik – the neo-Nazi who killed scores of children at a summer camp outside of Oslo in 2011. But what we can do is choose whether to make it harder or easier for such people to inflict their violent nightmares on others. And, in recent years, in America we have chosen to make it easier.
What is the common thread linking America’s mass shooting killers? It isn’t ideology, nor is it race or educational attainment. It isn’t age. It isn’t economic standing. The common thread is that all have had easy, in most cases legal, access to extraordinarily lethal, powerful weaponry – to the sorts of weapons that in most societies are accessible only to the military or to highly trained police units.
In 21st century America, by contrast, we have embraced a Mad Max vision of society, one in which security is garnered only through the mass arming of civilians; one in which liberty, as defined by the National Rifle Association and a large cadre of elected officials, as well as by tens of millions of citizens, is conflated with the right to possess and to carry on a daily basis, ever more powerful guns.
Last year, President Donald Trump responded to a mass shooting terror attack in Paris by averring that if the French allowed residents to buy and to carry guns, as do Americans, the fatalities would have been limited. In a shootout in a crowded urban setting, the argument went, somebody would have speedily taken down the gunmen. When Omar Mateen sprayed an Orlando nightclub with semi-automatic gunfire, Trump immediately announced that had the partygoers been packing guns one of them would have managed to shoot Mateen’s brains out, and that “boom, boom” end to the attack would have been a “beautiful, beautiful sight.”
Yet in Las Vegas on the evening of Oct. 1, none of America’s lax gun control policies made the slightest bit of difference in slowing Paddock’s rampage. Nevada has some of the least restrictive gun policies in the country. It’s easy to buy guns, lots of them, in the state; it’s easy to carry them pretty much anywhere; and it’s easy to carry them out of view of others – since, like a growing number of states, Nevada has a concealed carry law.
All of these laws made it ridiculously easy for Paddock to buy an arsenal of weapons, to stockpile ammunition, and to bring those weapons into a hotel room. None of these laws made it any more realistic that in the chaos of the moment those below him at the festival and on the streets of Las Vegas would be able to identify where the shots were coming from and then to get a clear line of fire to take down the shooter.
Each month, for the last decade-plus, Americans have bought well over a million more guns. In some months, they buy 2 million-plus weapons. After gun rampages such as what we saw last week in Las Vegas, gun purchases spike – as people rush to purchase before what they fear will be coming gun control legislation.
There are now more guns in civilian ownership in the United States than there are people in the country. After the Sandy Hook massacre, Slate magazine estimated that Americans owned more than 3 million assault-style rifles. Since then, the numbers have only gone up. And it is, time and again, the assault-style rifles that allow alienated, enraged individuals to succeed in becoming mass killers.
There is no purpose to such weapons other than to kill human beings. They are useless for hunting, since they shred the animals being hunted. They are pretty useless, too, for self-defense in most settings, since they are big and cumbersome.
But they are extremely good for premeditated rampages, for indiscriminate mass killing. That’s why, globally, such weapons have long been de rigueur among terrorist groups, among paramilitaries, among drug gangs fighting for territory, among military cliques seeking to overthrow civilian governments. They inflict terror and carnage effectively and over a wide terrain.
When overseas groups use such weapons, we rightly call them terrorists. When domestic organizations plot to make such weapons widely available here, and denounce those who favor restrictions as being un-American, somehow they get seen by many as freedom-lovers. It makes no sense.
We can’t necessarily stop a man like Paddock from harboring his furies against the world, but why go out of our way to make it easier for him to act on these twisted fantasies?
Sasha Abramsky’s 2013 book,“The American Way of Poverty,’ was listed by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of the year. His new book,”Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” was released last month by Nation Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.