Sorrow, But Little Appetite For New Laws Among Nevada Gun Enthusiasts

Oct 4, 2017
Originally published on October 5, 2017 9:13 am

Just off the Las Vegas Strip, there's a big white building in a run-of-the-mill office complex where tourists can pay as little as $50 to shoot 25 rounds from an AK-47. A billboard out front with a busty woman wielding a machine gun advertises the "ultimate shooting experience."

From the parking lot, you can see the Mandalay Bay. That's the hotel where 58 people were killed and nearly 500 were wounded on Sunday night during a country music festival.

Range 702 is one of nearly a dozen shooting ranges doing business along Las Vegas Boulevard. Las Vegas, and Nevada as a whole, are known for gun-friendly culture and comparatively lax laws.

With Las Vegas now also home to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, some say lawmakers need to do more to beef up gun control regulations.

At a hastily organized prayer service at Christ Church Episcopal, Dan Edwards, the Episcopal Bishop of Nevada, opened his sermon by calling people to action.

"What is the purpose of 100 round magazine clips, semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks that make a rifle shoot like a machine gun?" he asked. "We saw the purpose this weekend."

But many gun owners don't see new regulations as the right reaction.

One gun owner NPR spoke with said he'd be open to policy changes in light of Sunday's massacre — but only with clear evidence that those changes would have prevented the attack.

He asked us not to use his name, to keep his family and the gun club where he's one of 3,500 members from getting dragged into the headlines. NPR was turned away from all the shooting ranges or clubs where we asked to talk to people about what happened Sunday in Las Vegas.

This particular gun owner is a member of a private gun club in town. He says it's not unusual in Nevada for hunters to own many types of guns. He has many of his own.

"If you are attempting to controlling coyotes, you might use one caliber rifle, if you were trying to control an explosion of prairie dogs on your farm, it would be another type," he said. "If you're hunting elk in one particular type of terrain, it would be another choice of caliber."

But 23 guns in a hotel room on the Strip?

"It'd crazy for there to be one in the hotel room," he said. "None of this makes sense to any of us."

He says there should be consequences for people who are negligent in their responsibilities as firearms owners, but thinks it's unfair to punish them all for the actions of a small number of attackers.

"Was this an awful event? Yes it was. It was. And I can assure you that gun owners are just as upset if not more upset than the general public," he said. "It reflects poorly on something we find enjoyable."

He says he doesn't have any answers to the problem, but says he's willing to engage in dialogue with anyone who thinks they do.

The news that 12 of the guns recovered from the attack had been fitted with bump stocks — a device that uses a semiautomatic rifle's recoil to boost the gun's firing rate to near-automatic — broke after we finished talking.

"Given the circumstances," the gun club member wrote in a text message, "making those devices illegal would be logical and reasonable as part of future proposed legislation."

Don Turner, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition — the state association for the NRA, representing gun owners, users and clubs — says such a law wouldn't have stopped Sunday's shooter or limited his effectiveness.

"Putting more new laws on the book not going to stop it," he said. "It's just feel-good stuff. If we're going to do anything sufficient or effective, it's got to be more related. I would say probably more mental health examinations and services would probably be more effective in saving lives than worrying about piece of plastic that would or would not go on a gun."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The question - the question - that hangs over the investigation here in Vegas is, why? We still don't have a good answer to that, to what motivated Stephen Paddock. But we are slowly gaining insight into another key question. How?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Police say Paddock had 23 guns stockpiled at his hotel room. And 12 of them, according to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, were outfitted with something called a bump fire stock, a device that lets you fire round after round with a single twitch of a finger like a fully automatic weapon. These revelations have helped reignite a nationwide debate over guns and gun control.

KELLY: Here is one point not in dispute. Gun laws here in the state of Nevada are not strict. You don't need to register your weapon. You can carry a long gun openly close to anywhere you want. And here in Las Vegas, there's a bunch of places where tourists can pay 50 bucks to shoot an AK-47.

Now, we've just pulled into the parking lot of The Range 702. This is a shooting range - big billboard out front. You can't miss it from the highway. There's a busty woman holding a machine gun and wearing black lace with the slogan, the ultimate shooting experience. And then just behind that billboard a few hundred yards back is the hotel where the shooting unfolded. You can look straight out. And I'm looking at the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

Inside, we struck out. Nobody wanted to talk to us, so we headed next to Strip Gun Club. As the name suggests, it's on the Strip, the main drag of hotels and casinos. It's across a parking lot from the wedding Chapel of the Bells.

My name's Mary Louise Kelly. We're journalists from NPR, and we're here reporting on the aftermath of events of Sunday and wondered if there might be somebody we could talk to.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, we're not doing any media.

KELLY: No media at all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No. We can't have you guys on the property...

KELLY: Could we...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...So all the way to the sidewalk, please.

KELLY: All the way to the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

KELLY: We got this time after time as we tried to investigate the gun culture here. Nobody wanted to talk on the record. Finally we tracked down Don Turner. He's president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, the state association for the NRA. They represent gun owners, gun users, gun clubs. I asked him, after the massacre here on Sunday night, should Nevada's gun laws change?

DON TURNER: Putting more new laws on the books is not going to stop it. This has been a conundrum humans have fought with since Cain and Abel. You cannot legislate compliance with evil. People are going to be evil. They're going to do evil acts for one reason or another, and there's not any laws in the world would stop them. If we had a total ban on guns, they would've used a semitruck or a bomb.

KELLY: In this case, federal authorities now say that there were 12 bump fire stocks in his room. Bump fire stocks are not illegal. Should they be?

TURNER: I'm not going to comment on that, yes or no. I think there probably should be a discussion on it, but they basically just increase the mechanical rate of fire of a semiautomatic. So any legislation on that issue is going to have to be carefully crafted.

KELLY: But what is the case for them to be legal, for a civilian to need them?

TURNER: The rule of the law says that a semiautomatic firearm is discharged by a single manipulation of the trigger. But to take a device that will increase the rate of fire to kill people - the bottom line is they're still trying to kill people. And changing the device isn't going to stop the evil in their heart.

KELLY: But could changing the device or limiting the number of weapons that he had have limited the damage, have limited...

TURNER: No.

KELLY: ...The number of people who didn't walk out of that concert alive?

TURNER: No because it's not enforceable. It's just feel-good stuff. That's the problem, is - if we're going to do anything sufficient or effective, it's got to be more related - I would say probably more mental health examinations and services would probably be more effective in saving lives than worrying about a piece of plastic that would or would not go on a gun.

KELLY: But when something like this happens in your city, in your backyard, does it give you pause and think, OK, something needs to change so we don't keep going through this as a country?

TURNER: Of course. I agree completely. Something needs to be changed. But the $60 million question is, what is the something? The bottom line is that there is room in this country and a need in this country for rational discussion based on data but not for irrational proposals based on emotion.

KELLY: That's president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition Don Turner. And one more voice to introduce to this conversation - this is a private citizen, a member of a gun club with about 3,500 members in the suburbs of Las Vegas. We have verified his identity, but he asked us not to use his name on air. He wants to keep his family and his club from being dragged into the headlines. He did tell us he owns a lot of firearms.

How many guns would somebody like you have back at your house?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: More than one (laughter).

KELLY: As we chatted outside a coffee shop, he added, it's not unusual for, say, hunters in Nevada to own many types of guns.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you are attempting to control coyotes, you might use one caliber rifle. If you were trying to control an explosion of prairie dogs on your farm, it would be another type. If you're hunting elk in one particular type of terrain, it would be another choice of caliber.

KELLY: But 23 guns in a hotel room on the Strip.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's crazy. It'd be crazy for there to be one in the hotel room. None of this makes sense to any of us.

KELLY: Fully automatic weapons are highly regulated. They're expensive. But they are not illegal. Should they be?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think one would have to examine the record and see, has a registered automatic weapon ever been used in crime? And if so, how frequently and in what manner? More stringent...

KELLY: What's the case, though, that a civilian should ever have these?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a fair question. Have you ever shot a fully automatic firearm? I've done it under supervision of a range master, and there is an adrenaline rush. One could just as rightly ask, why would someone ever want an 800-horsepower, 300-mile-an-hour roadster?

KELLY: So give us a sense of what the conversation is in the circles that you're moving in here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We've talked about what happened in Florida and Sandy Hook. People have responsibilities when they have firearms. And if you are negligent in your responsibilities, I think there should consequences. But I think it would be unfair to punish all firearms owners for the actions of a minority. But was this an awful event? Yes, it was. It was. And I can assure you that gun owners are just as upset if not more upset than the general public.

KELLY: Why more upset?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because it reflects poorly on something that we find enjoyable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

KELLY: Across town, guns were also on people's minds inside the whitewashed walls of Christ Church Episcopal. We sat in on an evening service rushed together to respond to the massacre. There were prayers in English and Spanish, one from a rabbi. Dan Edwards, the Episcopal bishop of Nevada, delivered the sermon.

DAN EDWARDS: We have no constitutional right to food. We have no constitutional right to medical care. But we are fanatically jealous of our capacity to kill because that's what makes us heroes. That's what makes us matter. I can kill, therefore I am.

KELLY: Bishop Edwards told me afterwards in the courtyard outside the church, he sees his role as helping people find meaning in this tragedy.

EDWARDS: And the meaning isn't just lying there to be discovered. The meaning is something that with God's grace we create by how we respond and by how we go forward.

KELLY: Last night, the bishop sent people forward into the warm Nevada dark with these words. Quote, "as we have been so painfully reminded, life is short, so be swift to love. Make haste to be kind."

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.