The MGM fire still stands third on the list of most lethal fires in the history of the United States. The fire created a major challenge for Las Vegas and it raised questions about the city's future: Could the MGM rebuild the property and its image and could Las Vegas repair the damage to its reputation? Those questions begged others; could the casinos assure people it was safe to visit and would the Strip continue to grow as it had before? Fortunately for MGM and the city, that was an important turning point in the construction of hotels in Las Vegas and indeed the rest of the world. In the wake of the MGM fire and a second one in the Hilton just 90 days after the MGM, safety guidelines and fire codes changed. The new codes forced changes in construction materials and required an increase in smoke alarms and sprinkler systems.
It has been 37 years since the MGM fire and in that time the Las Vegas Strip has continued to grow and attract more visitors. In fact, the rate of growth accelerated. In 1980, 12 million people visited Las Vegas and by 2016 that number had grown to over 40 million. The number of hotel rooms grew from 45,815 at the time of the MGM fire to 149,339 in 2016. The next largest threat to the Strip was the Great Recession. It had a huge impact on the growth rate, the number of visitors and the revenue of Nevada's largest casinos. In the pre-recession year 2007 39 million people visited Las Vegas; in 2008 the number dropped to 36 million. In 2009, the trend reversed and the city and the Strip started to grow again, albeit slowly. But by 2012, the number of visitors was again 39 million and 42 million in 2016. Like the fire, the recession is now only a footnote in the history of the area. But the death of Bugsy Stiegel, the MGM fire and the Great Recession were small potatoes compared to a very recent event.
On Sunday, October 1, 2017, one man heavily armed opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest music festival where a crowd of 22,000 people were listening to country music. The shooter was safely hidden away on the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel. His bullets hit nearly six hundred people, fifty-eight died. The shooter's name was Stephen Paddock. He had blockaded himself in a room in the Mandalay Bay Hotel. He had broken out two of the windows so he could fire down on the concertgoers. In the days leading up to the attack, Paddock filled the room with 23 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Some of the weapons had been fitted with special stocks, converting those legal semi-automatic rifles to illegal fully automatic ones. The converted guns discharged rounds much faster and thus Paddock was able to hit many more people. Besides firing upon the crowd, Paddock also attempted to explode two jet fuel tanks visible from his room. The failure of those tanks to ignite was fortunate, undoubtedly an explosion would have killed and injured hundreds more people and complicated all rescue efforts. The event was so horrendous that it eclipsed everything that had gone before it, excepting the terrorist attacks in 2001.
The actual shooting only last ten minutes; it is unclear when and why Paddock stopped shooting. It is also uncertain how long the police stood in the hall before entering and if Paddock continued to shoot while the police stood outside his door. In any case, the police did enter the room and found Paddock dead.
Stephen Paddock is an enigma; many people appeared to have been acquainted with him, but no one seems to have really known or understood him. In the media narrative, Paddock was a gambler, real estate investor, pilot, a former accountant, mail man and IRS agent. According to some reports, he told people he was a professional gambler - apparently that meant video poker, but it might have meant counting cards in playing high-stakes blackjack. By some accounts he was an arrogant, self-centered and demanding person, by others he was a mild mannered neighbor and loving boyfriend. He was apolitical and non-religious or he was a recent convert to Islam and a soldier for ISIS, a right-wing fanatic or a dupe of anti-gun people. His mother and a brother survive him, as does a girlfriend, but they do not seem to have known him any better than did a cocktail waitress in Reno.
Ken Gray, a lecturer at the University of New Haven and former FBI special agent, said mass shootings generally fit nine categories: school shootings, church shootings, jealous rage, family rage, disgruntled employees, arrest-related shootings, robberies gone bad, terrorism or mental illness. Given what we know at this point, Paddock does not fit any of those categories. Whatever else he might have been, Paddock was a very careful and detailed planner. He had spent as much as a year gathering the weapons and ammunition, buying from gun dealers in Arizona, Utah, California and Nevada. He had checked into hotels in other cities that had rooms over looking venues that were used for large public gatherings. He also appeared to have calculated the trajectory of his bullets to assure the effectiveness of his efforts. He had blockaded parts of the stairwell and hallways and placed surveillance cameras outside of the room.
Paddock managed to do his planning while living with his girlfriend, gambling at his favorite casinos and talking to his family.
Does it matter who Stephen Paddock was or why he committed an evil act? It might matter, but his motives will be his alone and understanding him will not be much help in preventing others who might wish to accomplish the same thing. The person is not as important as the method; that is the only place change in public standards might prevent another incident. The casino industry is confronted with conceivably the greatest challenge in its history; the need to protect the customers and at the same time keep the environment fun and entertaining. It is not an easy problem to solve; but it is the problem of our times. The shooting inLas Vegas was the second casino attack in six months. In June a disgruntled gambler in the Philippines killed 36 people and set the casino on fire. Add those events to numerous mass killings in the United States and Europe in the last couple of years and you have a significant social challenge; how can society continue to function in a normal way while preventing deranged killers from acting out their criminal intents. Paddock might not fit any of the traditional categories, but he certainly lacked the normal amount of empathy that keeps us from killing each other more often.
The challenge will have to be met at two levels, at the societal level by government with laws and regulations that might limit the opportunity and resources killers need and on the private level by local businesses. In the coming months, gun control, background checks, making certain medical records public and extension of legal surveillance into more areas of public life are going to be discussed and debated. Few people in the public policy arena can agree on the root causes of violence in this country and therefore will not be able to agree on proper methods for controlling and reducing it. It may be simpler at the private level; casinos can begin taking action instantly without waiting for regulatory changes. Among the new procedures are certain to be more surveillance on the elevators going to hotel rooms, closer attention to demeanor of hotel guests and casino customers, metal detectors at the entrances to some venues and additional security personnel, including uncover cover officers both private and from the city and gaming control board. Steve Wynn says his casinos have already started using some protective measures. However, Wynn was vague about the detail. Vagueness is also going to become part of the overall debate. If potential killers know the protective measures they will be able to circumvent them. Any systematic solution to the human created problems of our society will lose effectiveness as soon as its details are known; it is a vicious circle.
The dilemma between public safety and public freedom is a national one and not confined to the Las Vegas Strip. It challenges the very nature of democracy and free enterprise. On one side of the dilemma is the challenge to live normally, with complete freedom of movement and choice; on the other side is the need to protect public places and the people who frequent them from violent attacks. Every time there is an attack on the public order, it is followed with calls for some new forms of protection and restriction. Each proposal has the potential to restrict a person's ability to live normally. Think of how much more difficult, time consuming and expensive air travel has become since 9/11. New restrictions on public gatherings and buildings will undoubtedly make many things more difficult and expensive. Since that fateful day in 2001, the gaming industry has dreaded the day it would be the target of terrorism. That day came on October 1, 2017. Paddock was not a traditional terrorist, but the end result of his actions was terror. In the wake of the Route 91 Harvest massacre, the challenge for the gaming industry is to find a way to retain the essence of its entertainment character while protecting its customers from the horrors of the likes of Paddock. There is one certain thing about that challenge, reaching that goal will not be as simple as changing the building codes was in 1980.
But that is just my opinion, isn't it?