The weapons Stephen Paddock used in his unprecedented rampage in Las Vegas Sunday night could have been readily and legally acquired in Nevada.
Gun owners in Nevada don't need a permit to buy or possess a rifle, shotgun or handgun, according to the National Rifle Association. They can carry a firearm openly in public. Nevadans can even purchase machine guns or silencers, banned in other states, as long as they're legally registered and within federal compliance. The state does not prohibit possession of assault weapons, 50-caliber rifles or large-capacity ammunition magazines, according to the NRA.
Paddock's arsenal and the harrowing sound of rapid-fire bursts of gunfire caught on video as he rained bullets down on the crowd renewed a national debate on Americans' relationship with guns and whether any tragedy will prove shocking enough to change it.
“I know this feeling of heartbreak and horror too well," said former U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot several times by a gunman in 2011 and is co-founder of the gun violence prevention group Americans for Responsible Solutions. "The massacre in Las Vegas is a grave tragedy for our nation. This must stop — we must stop this," she said in a statement.
Under federal law, machine guns — considered automatic weapons — are tightly regulated but legal to own as long as they were made before May 1986 and are registered with the federal government.
About 391,000 machine guns were listed in the national firearms registry as of November 2006, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates stricter gun laws. That same year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized 1,280 unregistered machine guns.
Unlike Nevada, several states, including California and Massachusetts, ban machine guns outright, with exceptions such as for police training.
Paddock, 64, of Mesquite, Nev., had at least 23 weapons, many of them rifles, in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino hotel rooms from which he opened fire on concertgoers below, a federal law enforcement official said Monday. A search of the shooter’s Mesquite home turned up 19 more weapons.
The official, who has been briefed on the matter but is not authorized to comment publicly, said police also found two tripods positioned at the hotel windows in what appeared to be a fully-equipped sniper’s nest to take better aim at the crowd below.
Hundreds of rounds of ammunition were among the suspect’s possessions, a cache that could have sustained him in a much longer assault, the official said.
Authorities believe that the gunman, who had no serious criminal background, purchased many of the weapons legally, though investigators were attempting to determine whether he illegally converted some to operate as fully automatic weapons, the official said.
At least some of his arsenal was purchased legally at Guns & Guitars in Mesquite.
“He passed every federal background check, every time he bought a gun,’’ owner Janis Sullivan, 67, told USA TODAY.
Police have not disclosed the type of weapons Paddock specifically used in the attack, but experts suspect he modified a semi-automatic weapon to accelerate the firing. Initial video of the shooting posted to social media sites showed a burst of rapid-fire gunshots lasting about nine seconds, followed by other similar bursts, as victims screamed and scrambled for cover. The entire ordeal lasted about five minutes, according to witnesses.
The shots killed at least 59 people and wounded 527 others, officials said. Police found Paddock dead in the hotel room, apparently by a self-inflicted wound.
Pro-gun advocates warned against knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy. Don Turner, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition (NVFAC), the state’s NRA affiliate, told VICE News that someone like Paddock who was bent on murder could always launch a shooting spree, regardless of any laws in place.
“In the emotion of the moment, there’s a tendency to push anti-gun agendas," he said. "We need to find out what really happened.”
Of the guns, ammunition and explosives found in the shooter’s home, Turner said, “Explosives obviously are illegal under Nevada law, and he had them. So how did that law prevent him from having the explosives? Unless we live in a total totalitarian state that monitors everything everyone does? You know, protecting people from evil has been a conundrum of the human species since the beginning.
"The Ten Commandments say you shall not murder — that sure doesn’t stop people from doing it."
Others seized the moment to call for tighter gun rules.
"Tragedies like Las Vegas have happened too many times," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., posted on Twitter. "We need to have the conversation about how to stop gun violence. We need it NOW."
The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban made those firearms illegal for a decade, but lawmakers allowed that ban to expire in 2004.
Some members of Congress pushed for a new ban on semi-automatic assault weapons in 2012 after a gunman killed 20 children and their teachers in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That effort stalled in Congress.
Gun control activists in Nevada scored a narrow victory last year with the passage of Ballot Question 1, which mandates background checks through a licensed gun dealer for all gun sales in the state, including private and online sales. But that initiative stalled under technicalities and has yet to be enforced.
A federal mandate requiring background checks for every gun purchased in America, including private transfers and Internet sales, would drastically reduce gun murders, said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. One in five gun purchases in the USA are made without background checks, often through the Internet, she said.
Gardiner said Congress could pass such a law without running afoul of the Second Amendment: "What we're talking about is keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people."
As in past shootings, the prospect of another gun debate sent gun shares climbing Monday, this time by 3% Monday.
Investors turned to gun stocks because they believe the prospect of more gun control could fuel sales as Americans look to better protect themselves before any restrictions take effect.
Contributing: Adam Shell, Kevin Johnson and Josh Peter, USA TODAY, and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Rob O'Dell and Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic. Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis
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