On Sunday night in Las Vegas, a shooter opened fire on a concert from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort with what appeared to be an assault weapon. This is a devastating tragedy, and one that has unfortunately become a trend in the U.S.: There has been an average of one mass shooting a day in 2017 (defined as four or more people shot, excluding the shooter). This incident has eclipsed all previous mass shootings in U.S. history, as there are already 58 people dead and hundreds wounded.
What kind of weapon is capable of inflicting so many casualties, from such a distance, in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes? While we don’t know where the gunman got his weapons and precise information on them has not been disclosed, based on reports of the rate of fire, they were likely either semiautomatic or fully automatic assault weapons. Semiautomatic assault weapons (whose trigger must be pulled to fire each round) have a rate of fire of over 100 rounds a minute. These weapons were banned from 1994 to 2004 under what is commonly referred to as the “assault weapon ban,” and are now readily available for sale in all but six states. There are reports that the shooter might have fired an automatic weapon (one just presses the trigger and the weapon keeps firing until it is released), which can fire up to a thousand rounds a minute. These weapons are tightly regulated. Regardless of the rate of fire, many of these weapons can pierce a soldier’s helmet from a distance of 500 yards.
More than half of the deadliest mass shootings since 1949 have occurred in the last decade, I’ve found in my own research. This is despite improved emergency response and better surgical outcomes. The only credible explanation for the increased lethality of these incidents is deadlier weapons and ammunition. Assault-style firearms have been the weapons of choice in many of the deadliest mass shootings in recent history: Orlando, Fla., Newtown, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif.
The incident in Las Vegas reveals the fallacy of the tired slogan, “Guns don’t kill, people do.” Yes, we need to address why so many Americans are attempting to kill a maximum of their fellows at random. At the same time, only a weapon designed for war could kill so many people from such a distance. High-capacity magazines capable of holding up to 100 rounds of ammunition only make that danger worse.
These weapons and magazines should never be in civilian hands and should be banned. Obviously, this is a tall order given the influence of the gun lobby on the Trump administration and majority party in Congress. But it’s not impossible. Existing weapons can be bought back from owners at a fair market price and destroyed. Australia melted down up to a third of its gun inventory following its deadliest-ever mass shooting in 1996, and has all but eliminated public mass shootings.
The gun lobby claims to champion freedom. Yet every successive large-scale mass shooting leads to an increasing demand for security and a continuing erosion of Americans’ freedom to use public spaces without fear. Citizens need to sustain their outrage over this incident and demand restrictions on ownership of assault-style weapons.
Thomas Gabor is a criminologist based in Florida and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America.