Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In America, the city’s approach to gun violence is far more common than not.
On Monday, Americans woke up to the worst mass shooting in modern history.
The night before, a white man—whom police have since identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock—opened gunfire from his room high up in the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas onto a crowd of concert-goers below. He killed 58 people, and injured hundreds of others. “It was an act of pure evil,” said President Donald Trump in a brief statement Monday.
The police later found the gunman dead, apparently in a suicide, in his hotel room. They also found 19 rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, according to the New York Times. Details about the nature of Paddock’s weapons, where he got them from, why he decided to use them in this fashion, and whether he had help, are not yet clear. “We have no idea what his belief system was,” Joseph Lombardo, sheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, told reporters.
As with mass shootings in the past, the tragedy in Las Vegas reignited the debate about gun control. Evidence suggests that greater restrictions on guns and ammunition can minimize mass casualties of this nature. Las Vegas gun laws are quite lax. In that sense, it is not the exception; it’s the rule. Even when voters advocate for laws to tighten their gun laws, state preemption laws and court rulings have become a major obstacle to making headway.
As Newsweek explains, the state of Nevada allows the purchase of rifles, shotguns, or handguns in any amount, without a license. These firearms do not need to be registered. It is also legal to carry weapons openly without a permit, or concealed, with a permit. Automatic rifles, machine guns, 50-caliber rifles, and large capacity ammunition magazines are allowed, in compliance with federal guidelines. Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, has some additional licensing requirements. But there’s only so far it can go, given that the Nevada state legislature has strong preemption powers pertaining to guns, meaning, it does not allow its cities and local governments to impose more stringent restrictions on guns.
“Like most states in the country, Nevada has relatively permissive gun laws,” says Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
The thing is: Nevada had a mandate to tighten gun flows. In November 2016, Clark County voters drove the approval for a state ballot measure extending background checks for firearm sales. But a month later, it was blocked. Attorney General Adam Laxalt pointed out in an opinion that a fatal legal flaw in the language of the measure gave the state “no authority” to administer these checks. In May, 2017, the Las Vegas Sun wrote in an editorial:
But unless you were born with an extra gullibility gene or two, you had to wonder whether Laxalt was actually motivated by politics instead of the law. A conservative Republican who has all but announced he’ll run for governor in 2018, Laxalt has had plenty to gain among the NRA crowd and other deep-red voters by trying to torpedo a modest and completely reasonable gun measure.
Nevada is just the tip of the iceberg. At Boston University, Michael Siegel and Molly Pahn have created a comprehensive and current database of each state’s gun legislation between 1991 and 2017—and visualized them in maps. Their big takeaway: “There is a general movement that the gun lobby is pushing to make guns easier to obtain and easier to use,” says Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at BU, explaining the trend over the last few decades.
More and more states enacted “stand your ground” laws, which allow people to shoot their guns without repercussions if they felt threatened. (This law came to the fore during the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin.) A lot of new legislation gives impunity to gun manufactures, according to Siegel’s and Pahn’s accounts.
But here’s the most striking fact: In most states, individual municipalities have limited capacity to make their own, more restrictive laws, because only five states don’t have preemption laws that restrict local legislation. Three others allow a limited type of local gun laws.
“This is one of the areas that the gun lobby has been most effective,” Siegel says. “They monitor the 50 states … if they had to go from city council to city council, that would be very difficult.”
Below is a screenshot of a map from Siegel’s public database. The highlighted states are where laws preempting local gun control don’t exist or are limited in scope:
Of course, no single gun control law could have prevented what happened in Las Vegas. Paddock, for example, could have passed even strict background checks in order to obtain his weapons. But in conjunction with others, such legislation can help limit the scope and extent of damage. A ban on large capacity magazines—which over half of the mass shooters have used, and which Paddock may have used as well—may have weakened the force of Paddock’s attack.
But unlike other nations, America does not appear to be headed towards a future with higher regulation, despite the increase in shootings. The National Rifle Association has successfully refashioned the Second Amendment into a cultural juggernaut—pushing pro-gun laws at the state and federal level. The cost is incidents like the one on Sunday in Las Vegas—and the next ones after that.