Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Sunday’s mass shooting will test how a city built on carefree behavior balances privacy and security.
The man suspected of firing down into an outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday night, killing at least 59 people and injuring 527, managed to haul at least 23 firearms—plus ammunition, gun stands, scopes, and other accessories—into his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay.
The newest, deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history has already opened up a debate over questions of security in one of America’s most wide-open (and yet closely surveilled) cities. As the usual voices rise up to demand Congressional action on gun control, others are looking to the security state for answers. But Las Vegas makes for a challenging place to test the limits of personal safety: On the Strip, boundaries between public and private space have always been fuzzy, and protective measures must walk a fine line.
The Strip is already one of the most heavily monitored places in the country. Casinos, it’s often said, have more cameras per square foot than most airports. Private security officers monitor screens for signs of cheating and suspicious activity, while others roam gambling floors and hotel grounds in person. Metal detectors and other scanning devices probe visitors as they enter through some casino doors. Some properties train staff to recognize and report signs of suspect behavior. (Here’s a training video used to train workers to sniff out terrorists.) Private security chiefs meet monthly with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to exchange information, according to multiple sources I talked to recently.
By design, these measures are largely invisible to visitors. The town’s gaming and tourism industries want visitors to feel welcome to do what they like. Indeed, a certain personal recklessness is baked into the modern Las Vegas brand. Toward that end, the Strip—that shrine to constant reinvention—has been re-engineered to cater to a sense of carefree enjoyment. If that means drinking on the street, or bringing back escorts, “the properties want their guests to feel free,” says Erika Schumacher, the coordinator of the emergency crisis management executive masters program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “They want them to know they can do things and not get caught.”
Sunday’s attack was not the first time that ethos has been tested. It’s helpful here to remember that, while the Strip effectively serves as central business district of Las Vegas, it is not in Las Vegas. Most of it is in Paradise—a swath of unincorporated Clark County, created by mobster hoteliers in the 1950s to avoid municipal fees, taxes, and regulations.
That has led to complications around what’s allowed there, and who’s responsible, says Michael Green, a professor of Nevada history at UNLV. One (possibly apocryphal) tale he shares is from the 1930s, when city and county fire departments argued about who should put out a flaming nightclub while it burned to the ground. Another: Due in part to a lack of fire safety codes and oversight, 85 people died in a fire at the MGM Grand in 1980.
The strange jurisdictional dynamics of the Strip do have a flip side. As in a mall or theme park, private property owners can and do legally scrutinize visitors more than cities could in truly public downtowns. That means that these owners could swiftly institute tighter controls in the wake of Sunday’s events, like security checkpoints and baggage searches—and not just inside the famous casinos. Many of the Strip’s sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, and plazas that feel “public” are privately owned, too.
Security experts are divided on whether Sunday’s attacks are likely to change the security experience of the hotel industry at large. But several sources I spoke with in Las Vegas—including Schumacher, William Sousa, the director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at UNLV, and C. David Shepherd, a former security director at the Venetian and a 20-year member of the Las Vegas Security Chiefs Association—seem skeptical. Property owners have long been aware that the Strip is a “soft target,”and they’ve been unwilling to harden their properties with enhanced security measures that would detract from the sense of otherworldly carefreeness.
It is also questionable whether such heightened security could have ever prevented Sunday’s attack, an attack of nightmarish geometry. Still, property owners may take on surveillance measures that are less obvious to the public, according to experts. Shepherd, who now runs a consulting agency that offers commercial security training to business owners around the country, with a heavy representation on the Strip, says that some of his clients are looking to scan social media for threats to their properties. “We have to be looking everywhere,” he says. Sousa adds that frontline staff, like maintenance workers and room cleaners—who are most likely to come into contact with guests of all motivations—could be trained, too, to recognize suspicious behavior.
Would any of that helped stop the massacre on Sunday? The suspect left no evidence of his plans on social media. And the 64-year-old gunman was in many ways the quintessential favored Vegas patron—a white retiree and chronic gambler who’d spend days on end in Las Vegas hotels. The gaming industry is all but built to cater to the every need of people like him. It would not be surprising to find that no casino employees raised any questions about why a lone high-rolling guest needed so much luggage.
That part of this town’s unofficial compact with its guests may change in the future. In these ways, the implicit trade-off of the Las Vegas experience would deepen: Visitors give up more privacy, in exchange for perceived freedom. Whether they’re actually safer is anyone’s best guess.
Unless the Strip’s powerful players took a different tack in response to Sunday’s horror. Las Vegas has, after all, always changed in response to what the public seeks, says Green. It’s also been a city of moral and ideological flexibility, one that’s managed to work with, and appeal to, lawmakers of both parties. Casino magnates like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn wield enormous influence on elected officials at both the state and federal levels. Rather than attempt to boost the city’s already-formidable surveillance state—an effort that might be futile in the face of one determined killer among 42 million annual visitors—these moguls might listen to the 90 percent of Americans who support expanded background checks for gun purchases, for example, and lobby accordingly.
Imagine if Las Vegas’ next great transformation involved enhancing public safety for the whole country. Imagine if Las Vegas, of all places, helped America atone for one of its cardinal sins.