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OUR VIEWS

Allowing unlimited stockpiling of weapons is madness

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

It’s been a week since Stephen Paddock opened fire from an upper floor at a Las Vegas hotel room, raining down a torrent of bullets into a crowd of country music lovers at an outdoor festival, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 500 others.

In the days since what is now be­come known as the worst mass shoot­ing in our na­tion’s his­tory, we’ve learned a lot about the large ar­se­nal Pad­dock had stock­piled. We’ve learned he had at least 23 weapons in his hotel room, mostly as­sault-style ri­fles, and an­other 19 at his home.

We also know that he used a legally pur­chased de­vice known as a “bump stock” to mod­ify a dozen of the ri­fles to fire con­tin­u­ously like an au­to­matic weapon. He did this ap­par­ently so he could spray the crowd be­low with hun­dreds more bul­lets per minute, un­leash­ing the most lethal­ity for the least ef­fort. In­cluded among the am­mu­ni­tion he had were “tracer” rounds that can im­prove a shooter’s ac­cu­racy in the dark, al­though it’s not clear Pad­dock used any in his 10-minute mur­der­ous ram­page.

We’ve also learned that Paddock meticulously planned last Sunday’s massacre. He secretly — but legally — amassed his stockpile of weapons over a year’s time. Investigators have found records showing he purchased 33 weapons in four different states and bought bulk ammunition in a fifth state. We’ve also learned Paddock may have scoped out other music festivals before choosing the outdoor venue in Las Vegas to create his own personal killing field.

What we don’t know, despite the best efforts of law enforcement, is why Paddock decided to use his cache of dangerous weapons to take so many lives, including his own. That’s because unlike other mass killers, Paddock didn’t leave any clues behind about his motives. He left no note, no social media posts, no conversations with friends — nothing to suggest what he was planning. There’s also apparently little in his personal background that can easily be pointed to — no history of mental illness, no ties to radical groups, no bad work or personal relationships — to provide a shorthand explanation for what he did.

And that, interestingly, may turn out to be the only good thing about this horrific event.

Without easy explanations for Paddock’s actions, we finally may be forced to confront the truth that’s been staring us in the face for decades: that allowing the unlimited, unregulated sale of high-powered rifles that can be easily and legally modified into mass instruments of death is pure madness. Eventually those who have these types of weapons might use them for no reason other than that they can.

The lack of any apparent motive in the Las Vegas massacre has apparently caught the antennae of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s leading opponent of any gun-control measures, including commonsense ones. The NRA notoriously lobbied against the idea of universal background checks for all gun purchases following the murder of 26 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, effectively helping kill bi-partisan legislation in the Senate that would have required the checks. The NRA, which instills fear in lawmakers who don’t agree with it, has also opposed re-imposition of the former ban on assault-style weapons as well as measures limiting the sale of high-ammunition magazines. It even opposed, and helped Republicans in Congress kill, a measure that would have denied suspected terrorists on the government’s no-fly list from buying guns.

So it’s interesting the NRA, which as part of its defense of the Second Amendment opposes any limit on the sale of any weapon anywhere, now wants the ATF to review its position on bump stocks. The ATF concluded in 2010 that the devices, which were originally designed to help the disabled more easily fire semi-automatic rifles, are not restricted by federal gun laws, so therefore they can be legally sold.

Notably the NRA is not calling for a ban on bump stocks; it instead wants the ATF to make a regulatory decision. ATF officials, meanwhile, have indicated that they can’t make that decision on their own. They say Congress will have to change federal law in order for the agency to regulate bump stocks. A bill to ban bump stocks and any other devices that would allow a weapon to be fired automatically has been introduced in Congress. But it’s not clear the NRA, or the members of the House and Senate they control through fear, will support it.

The fact the NRA is willing to potentially sacrifice bump stocks is telling. The devices are not popular — at least not until the threat they might be banned took hold in our gun-obsessed culture; now they’re flying off gun store shelves. But the fact is, bump stocks are not guns, so it’s easier for the NRA to kick them under the bus and hope regulatory efforts stop there.

What the NRA isn’t calling for are commonsense regulations like the closing of the ridiculous loophole that allowed Paddock’s purchase of 33 rifles in four states to go undetected.

Under current federal law, most of the licensed gun stores where the 64-year-old Paddock bought his weapons over the past year weren’t required to report multiple rifle purchases. Licensed gun stores are required to report to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives multiple handgun purchases. However, there is no similar reporting requirement for rifles, which accounted for most of Paddock’s purchases. Only in two states where he did buy guns — California and Texas — would his multiple purchases have been reported to the ATF, but there’s no requirement for the federal agency to investigate the purchases. Also, the six-year law requiring that notification in four states bordering Mexico expires after this year.

Notifying the ATF when someone buys 33 semi-automatic rifles in a year would seem like a reasonable thing to do. Indeed, polls consistently show a majority of Americans, including most gun owners, support commonsense laws that would keep potential Stephen Paddocks from amassing the kinds of arsenals capable of easily killing so many people so quickly. In North Carolina, we already track and limit the sale of products containing the drug pseudoephedrine as a way to stop the spread of meth labs. Why won’t we track a product that kills way more people than meth?

Opponents of gun-sale notification laws, including the NRA, claim they would infringe on gun owners’ rights under the Second Amendment “to bear arms.” What they’re forgetting is that the right to bear arms isn’t unlimited. If it was, most of the gun-obsessed fanatics in our culture would be stocking up on bazookas, not bump stocks, and they’d be carrying them on military bases, at schools and other places where they’re now prohibited by commonsense laws.

One of the arguments the NRA and others make against commonsense gun-control measures is that they’ll hurt the common gun owner but won’t stop the Stephen Paddocks of the world. The point they’re missing is that Stephen Paddock was one of those common gun owners — someone who was exercising his right under current law to buy as many semi-automatic weapons as he liked, when he liked, and turn them, unnoticed, into instruments of extreme lethality.

So our question is, how long can we allow this madness to continue?

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