The rapid gunfire in Sunday night’s attack in Las Vegas sounded to many like a machine gun, adding a horrifying element to what have become all-too-frequent mass shootings in America.
Authorities said Monday evening that they had recovered 16 firearms the shooter had stockpiled in his hotel room, using them to rain death upon a country music festival on the ground outside the Mandalay Bay casino. Another 18 weapons were recovered from the Mesquite, Nevada, home of Stephen Craig Paddock.
Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said some of the weapons — ranging in caliber from the .223 associated with AR-15 style rifle to .308 associated with heavier tactical arms — appeared to have been mechanically converted to full automatic fire, though he said he wasn’t yet certain.
“The ATF hasn’t evaluated them yet. But I don’t know if the [firing] pins have been filed or converted to fully automatic,” Sheriff Lombardo told reporters in Las Vegas.
If he used a fully automatic weapon, it would be a first for mass shootings in modern American history.
If Paddock used other legal after-market adaptions, it would raise all sorts of questions about the firepower available to citizens. Such mechanical retooling, although not difficult to accomplish, is illegal.
The police also recovered at least one AK-47 rifle with a bipod stand, scopes and a modified handgun in the hotel room, said Sheriff Lombardo.
Firearm experts who looked at video capturing the sound of the gunfire weren’t convinced the weapons were true machine guns.
“From the footage I saw, I could not determine conclusively it was a fully automatic weapon. It could have been something else that had a legal rapid-fire mechanism installed,” said Eileen Ferguson, owner of Carson Armory in Mound House, Nevada.
Her gun shop near Reno sells three or four machine guns a year. She said the approval process is onerous and machine guns for sale are scarce.
Fully automatic weapons fire continuously when the trigger is pulled. They haven’t been a weapon of choice in mass shootings. Instead, mass killers have opted for semi-automatic weapons that fire a single shot with each trigger pull.
Indeed, much of the gun control debate in recent years has focused on those semi-automatic, military-style weapons that opponents have dubbed “assault rifles.”
Proposals to curtail their sales and to limit the size of ammunition magazines have been offered and rejected in Congress.
Fully automatic machine guns, meanwhile, haven’t been a focus — chiefly because there are few in circulation. They are prohibitively expensive and heavily regulated by the federal government. A purchaser must submit a photograph and fingerprints and undergo an intensive background check before obtaining a $200 tax stamp.
“Right now, that investigation takes anywhere between 6 and 12 months. And once that person is approved, they are issued a special tax stamp, which allows them to possess one individual machine gun,” said Mrs. Ferguson. “It’s not a blanket approval. It is an approval that happens every time a person attempts to purchase a machine gun.”
Legislation signed by President Reagan in 1986 also effectively prohibited the manufacture of machine guns for civilian use.
As a result, pre-1986 machine guns are scarce outside of law enforcement and the military, and the cost typically is in the tens of thousands of dollars.
However, technologies have enabled gun owners to legally and often cheaply modify semi-automatic weapons to fire hundreds of rounds per minute.
A binary trigger fires a round when the trigger is pulled and when the trigger is released. Repeatedly pulling the trigger creates a spray of bullets.
The kit costs $300 to $400.
A semi-automatic rifle upgraded with a bump fire stock uses the gun’s recoil to squeeze off shots in rapid succession. It costs $100 to $300.
A trigger crank attaches to the trigger guard, rapidly pulling the trigger when the shooter turns the crank. Those can cost as little as $40.
“Semi-automatic is good enough — or worse enough,” said Tomer Israeli, a former Israeli Secret Service agent who runs a tactical shooting-training center in the Washington suburbs.
“It doesn’t have to be automatic to get results, and professionals know that automatic doesn’t get results sometimes. A semi-automatic can do a lot of damage,” he said.
The type of weapon used in the attack contributed to the tragedy, said Genghis Cohen, owners of Machine Gun Vegas, a shooting range in Las Vegas that rents fully automatic weapons for target practice.
“We believe, as we always have, that there should absolutely be more stringent control on the types of firearms,” the company said in a statement. “There were many factors contributing to this tragic event, but there is no doubt that the shooter’s ability to inflict so many casualties was heavily due to the types of weapons he had access to.”
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