Stephen Paddock owned 42 guns. We know the names of at least two of the gun shops where he purchased them, and we also know that some of his weapons were legally registered. Knowing all of this, then why couldn’t we have prevented his slaughter of at least 59 people and the injury of another 500? Certainly the building of an arsenal is something that is carefully monitored by the American government — right? Wrong.
Ours is a highly surveilled and stunningly panoptic culture, and the FBI monitors the lives of countless private citizens. Yet no FBI agent or employee at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) could’ve caught wind of Paddock’s stockpile of weapons because neither the FBI, nor any other federal or state-level government agency, keeps a centralized record of who owns firearms. In other words, despite the fact that some of Paddock’s weapons were legally registered, no one aside from the handful of licensed dealers where he bought them could’ve possibly known that he had them until it was too late.
While it’s shocking that our nation doesn’t have a national gun registry, it’s not at all surprising. The NRA made sure that we don’t have a searchable database of gun owners after lobbying for a federal law preventing such a thing in order to “protect” the rights of gun owners. Passed in 1986, the law has ensured that our system for monitoring who owns guns isn’t just archaic, but virtually nonexistent, and it arguably allowed Paddock to fly under the radar.
There are over two million new gun records every month that a small department within the ATF has to deal with, and up to 1,500 daily requests to run traces on individual guns. Because there is no searchable database — indeed, there isn’t even a computer to contain data — agents must sort through records of microfilm.
Yes, microfilm. As Jeanne Marie Laskas reported last year for GQ: “It’s kind of like a library in the old days — but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.”
Most of us recognize that our current gun laws are Kafkaesque, archaic, and just plain wrong. In 2016, 60 percent of Americans said they wanted the next president to push gun control laws. Clearly, this hasn’t happened. We’ve allowed the NRA to become more powerful than the desires of the majority of our population. This means that what just happened in Las Vegas will soon be repeated. There’s no way to prevent mass shootings if the nation isn’t even allowed to keep tabs on who owns firearms.
As Jimmy Kimmel said last night on his talkshow: “And you know what’ll happen? We’ll pray for Las Vegas, some of us will get motivated, some of us won’t get motivated, bills will be written, they’ll be watered down, they’ll fail, the NRA will smother it all with money, and over time, we’ll get distracted, we’ll move on to the next thing. And then it will happen again. And again.”
Paddock’s killing spree might’ve been avoided had someone — anyone — even a paper-pushing ATF agent — been alerted by what is now only a hypothetical alert set off my multiple gun registrations by the same person within a searchable national gun registry. To prevent future mass shootings, the law that prevents us from having such a registry — at the very least — must be repealed.
Right now, somewhere in America, at least one other white man (because it’s predominantly white men) is building an arsenal, and today, tomorrow, next week, who-knows-when — but entirely too soon — our nation will suffer yet another of the newest, biggest, “deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.” For now, without a searchable national registry, there’s nothing we can do to stop him. We’re all sitting ducks.