IN THE absence (at the time of writing) of any explanation why Stephen Paddock opened fire on a music-festival crowd in Las Vegas on Sunday, attention has naturally focused not on why he killed 59 people and injured 527 others, but on how he was able to do it. Debate has raged about the nature of the weapons he used; but the fact remains that Mr Paddock, a 64-year-old white American living in a retirement complex, was able to acquire more than 40 weapons and unlimited ammunition, seemingly legally and without ringing any alarm bells with the authorities.
Until now, the fierce defence of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, has quashed attempts at gun control after similar massacres, much to the frustration of the former President, Barack Obama. The scale of the carnage inflicted in a few minutes by one individual, however, has the potential to shock the United States into reconsidering the freedom with which its citizens have been able to amass semi-automatic weapons since a law restricting their sale was allowed to lapse in 2004.
It would help, of course, if the current President used his leverage to bring some sanity to the US gun laws. Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination was backed by the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), to the tune of more than £22 million. Although it is, perhaps, too much to ask for a change in the culture that has made an estimated (because no permits are required) 55 million Americans gun-owners, a restriction on the type of weapon available ought to be back on the table. It is just possible that the NRA might listen to someone considered to be one of their own, and not an East Coast liberal. So far, however, President Trump has said merely that he would look at gun laws “as time goes by”.
President Trump, on Tuesday, hinted at a motiveless crime, calling Mr Paddock “a sick man, a demented man”. The President might remember that the only change he has made to the gun laws since coming to power was to revoke a law promoted by his predecessor to ban the sale of weapons to those with a mental illness, defined by the receipt of social-security payments for mental incapacity or where a person has been deemed unfit to arrange his or her own financial affairs. Neither category would have applied to Mr Paddock, who is reported to have been a wealthy speculator and gambler; but it would have taken about 75,000 others out of the gun-owning class.
If Mr Paddock’s motives can ever be fathomed, perhaps the US will have a deeper debate about the reason that successive individuals have wanted to inflict death and injury on their compatriots. But, until then, the country could make progress on tackling the means of putting these desires into practice.