Next door to the Mandalay Bay casino where Sunday night’s shooting rampage occurred on the Las Vegas strip, British tourist Gary Shepherd was struggling like nearly everyone else to process what happened.
“Whether this will finally change your gun laws, I fancy not, personally,” Shepherd says.
The country’s latest – and now deadliest in history – mass shooting has again reignited debate over gun control, and whether tougher gun laws could prevent future tragedies.
The early analysis is that Shepherd’s hunch is probably right.
Just like in many other western states with large rural populations, Nevada’s gun laws are relatively lax, and have proven hard to change. Hunting, recreational shooting and gun ownership is woven tightly into a lot of people’s identities here. And even in more liberal leaning Las Vegas, gun tourism is nearly as ubiquitous as gambling and stage shows.
“We have a very strong gun culture, especially in rural Nevada and in Mesquite which is where the shooter is from,” says Natalie Hernandez, gun violence prevention organizer with the group Battle Born Progress.
Liberal groups like Hernandez’s that support stronger gun control won a victory last fall when a ballot measure calling for background checks narrowly passed.
But any celebration was short lived.
Nevada’s Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican, ruled the new law is not enforceable because the federal government signaled it would no longer help states that have passed more restrictive background checks.
For her part, Hernandez thinks that after this massacre, the conversation on gun control should start to shift even in Nevada.
“I don’t think a lot of people are informed and educated on the fact of how easy it is to buy a gun here and the fact that you can legally carry it anywhere,” she says.
Nevada is an open carry state, meaning openly carrying long guns, rifles and other weapons in public places is generally okay, apart from in courtrooms and in schools. Some casinos have also moved to prohibit them. It’s also relatively easy to obtain a concealed carry permit and there are no restrictions on semi-automatic weapons or large-capacity magazines.
For several decades, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, did have a handgun registration law. But that ended two years ago when the conservative state legislature prohibited cities and counties from passing local gun ordinances.
“I’ve seen some stuff in the last couple of days saying we have some of the laxest gun laws and that’s not quite technically true,” says Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Voters in the Las Vegas area were largely credited with tipping last year’s background check law into the yes column. Bartrum says it’s of the only places in the state where you’ll find some, broad support for gun certain control measures, largely because it’s a major metropolitan area with a dense population. But even here, with shooting ranges and other gun tourism as big of a part of the economy as it is, gun politics are still complicated.
“It’s very difficult in the West and in Nevada in particular to talk about gun control and have it go very far,” says Ian Bartrum, constitutional law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Further, for legal experts, the issue of whether tougher gun laws could prevent mass shootings is especially complicated, because you’re dealing with state laws, federal laws and a Constitutional right to gun ownership, with some jurisdictions passing laws in conflict with the other.
Federal law is still pretty restrictive when it comes to who can own fully automatic weapons manufactured after 1986, the last time Congress revised the National Firearms Act. And gun law experts point out that you have to be licensed to buy parts that convert semi-automatic weapons to automatic, like the so-called “bump stocks” that police say were found in Stephen Paddock’s hotel room Sunday night. There were also 23 guns stockpiled there.
As law enforcement’s investigation continues, people like Gary Shepherd, the British tourist, are left to wonder whether new restrictions would even make a difference.
“If you’d have said right, we’re gonna have new gun laws now, there are [still] so many weapons out there, Shepherd says.
Indeed, the sharp divide in this country over gun ownership and gun policy in the wake of deadly mass shootings will by all accounts continue. This is especially true for Nevada, where lawsuits are already being threatened against the state over its refusal so far to enforce the background checks ballot measure that the voters already approved.