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Las Vegas: The harvest of unspeakably lax gun laws

Las Vegas: The harvest of unspeakably lax gun laws
Even President Trump looked stunned in speaking on the Las Vegas massacre Monday. But his words signaled that there will be no legislative action to keep it from happening again. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

“The answers do not come easy,” President Trump said Monday in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in American history, with at least 58 dead in a massacre on the Las Vegas Strip.

He's wrong. Every other civilized country has found answers to gun violence, and none of them faces the daily toll of the United States. What doesn't come easy is the political will to respond to the public's call for tighter gun laws. Nevada is virtually a laboratory for what can happen when gun laws are loosened, not tightened.

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Clark County, the scene of Sunday night's calamity, used to be the only county in Nevada that had the authority to require registration of handguns. They had to be registered within 60 days of moving into the county of 72 hours of purchase or transfer. Private sales had to be completed at a police station. Some cities required a three-day waiting period for some purchases.

Banning this or that gun would not have prevented this. Even carrying for self-defense would not make a difference. Those poor people were sitting ducks.


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Clark County's authority to enforce those local laws was revoked by the state legislature in 2015. The county's registration records were all destroyed under the state law by the following June.

Mesquite, Nev., where the apparent shooter, Stephen Paddock, lived, is in Clark County.

None of this means that Paddock would have been unable to perpetrate his crime if not for the 2015 law, since he seems to have relied on a high-caliber automatic weapon in his attack, not handguns. But it's a window into the lax approach to firearms throughout Nevada, one of the more gun-friendly states in the union.

In Nevada, concealed weapon permits are "shall-issue," according to Nevadacarry.org, a pro-gun group. That means that sheriffs must hand them out to any qualified person, meaning anyone who is not a felon, drug addict or illegal immigrant or has never been judged mentally ill or committed of been convicted of a crime of domestic violence. Open carry is legal without a permit. Nevadacarry.org reports that the state doesn't ban assault weapons or impose a magazine capacity limit. No purchase permits, gun registration, waiting period or owner licensing is required. Private gun sales are legal and, as Clark County knows, Local gun laws are banned.

It's legal to carry a gun openly in Nevada anywhere except in federal buildings and schools. You can carry a gun openly even on private property where "no gun" signs are posted; they don't have the force of law. You can carry a gun openly or (with a permit) concealed even in bars while drinking alcohol. You can carry a gun openly or concealed in a casino. "Most casinos will ask you to leave or disarm if they observe you carrying firearms," according to Nevadacarry, but all that can happen if you refuse to leave to comply is that you can be charged with trespassing.

It appears that the tide of public opinion may turning in Nevada. Question 1, a ballot measure that required that all firearm transfers except for those between members of an immediate family go through a licensed dealer and be subject to background checks, passed narrowly in the November election. Clark County, which as the home of Las Vegas is the state's most populous and cosmopolitan county, put the measure over the top with 56.7% of voters in favor, but it trailed in Reno and lost badly in the state's rural districts.

The measure was supported by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a vociferous gun-control advocate, who contributed $3.5 million directly to the election campaign. It was opposed by the National Rifle Association, which contributed $6.5 million to defeat it. Gov. Brian Sandoval and Atty. Gen. Adam Laxalt, both Republicans, opposed Question 1. After the election, Laxalt ruled the measure invalid. The measure required that gun dealers were required to perform their background checks directly through an FBI database; but the FBI has refused to make the database available to private parties. As a result, Laxalt ruled, the measure can’t be enforced.

Nevada rated a C-minus score this year from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to tightening firearms restrictions. The center ranked the state's laws the 18th strongest in the nation, but that was only because of the passage of Question 1; before that vote, the center placed Nevada 27th. The center calculated the state's gun death rate at 14.9 per 100,000 residents, or 14th highest among the 50 states.

The Las Vegas massacre will again occasion the kind of political hand-wringing that presages an utter lack of legislative action. A surfeit of "thoughts and prayers" already is emanating from Washington, with Trump's early-morning tweet offering his "warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting" leading the way. Trump followed the gun lobby playbook for the aftermath of a mass shooting, declaring it "an act of pure evil," as though to absolve policy-makers and legislators of any responsibility. On its website, Nevadacarry took up the task of defending the state's legislative laxity, branding the attack a "terrorist" act.

"Banning this or that gun would not have prevented this," the organization said. "Even carrying for self-defense would not make a difference. Those poor people were sitting ducks."

The event will underscore the biggest vacuum in American firearms policy—the lack of hard research about the causes and consequences of gun violence, the product of the NRA's 20-year blockade of research.

But the carnage will underscore a few aspects of mass shootings that we do know. One is that, even though they comprise a small percentage of all gun deaths in America (and the toll from Las Vegas won't change that much), they have an outsized effect on public opinion because the victims are so random. Unlike most gun deaths, mass shootings can happen to anyone, anywhere, heightening anxieties about life in our public spaces.

Nevada has a middle-of-the-pack C-minus rating from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence--but it's that high only because of the passage of Question 1 last November--and the gun licensing measure has been invalidated.
Nevada has a middle-of-the-pack C-minus rating from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence--but it's that high only because of the passage of Question 1 last November--and the gun licensing measure has been invalidated. ((Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence))

As UC Davis gun policy expert Garen Wintemute told me this summer, "For large segments of the population, firearm violence occurs to people who aren't like them and in places they know not to be. Mass shootings happen not to people who aren't like me, but to people just like me who are doing just the kind of things I do, wherever I happen to be." The Las Vegas shootings fit that pattern to a T—the victims were attending a crowded open-air concert in a Las Vegas park when the gunman opened fire from a high floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel.

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Wintemute also pointed to one possible warning sign suggested by an examination of mass shootings in California: "Aberrant patterns of firearm purchases" prior to an attack, such as the rapid acquisition of lots of guns in a short period of time. The chronology of Paddock's gun purchases hasn't yet been publicly disclosed, but he's reported to have had an arsenal of automatic weapons in his Mandalay Bay room.

Research such as that being conducted by Wintemute's newly-established program at UC Davis may help explain what drives an individual to cause the death and destruction seen in Las Vegas. But one can't assume that a lax approach to gun sales and gun possession, such as Nevada's, has nothing to do with it. It seems as though the voters of Clark County almost had a premonition that something bad was coming.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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