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Labeling Las Vegas: An Analysis of Declaring the Tragedy a Terrorist Attack

By Samuel Nicosia

Tragedy swept the nation like wildfire on October 1, 2017, when Stephen Paddock opened fired on unsuspecting concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival on the Las Vegas Strip, resulting in the deaths of 58 Americans and injuring over 500 more. This attack is unparalleled, producing the highest number of victims of any mass shooting in American history. People from around the world joined the United States and the families of the victims in mourning the loss of these innocent lives. However, in the face of this disaster there is one question that plagues the minds of many: Why would a person commit such a heinous crime?

Over three weeks later, investigators of the Las Vegas massacre are still searching for Paddock’s motive. With the lack of a known intent behind the attack, a debate has risen over whether to title the shooting a domestic terrorist attack. Some argue that the shooting was a domestic terrorist attack based on its scale and nature, yet others argue that we should refrain from calling it a domestic terrorist attack because there is no evidence to indicate what the shooter’s motivation may have been. The debate seems to stem from which elements of an attack may constitute the Las Vegas massacre as an act of domestic terrorism.

According to federal law outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5), acts of domestic terrorism involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the laws of the United States or any other state. There is no debate that Paddock’s actions violated the criminal law of Nevada. Additionally, acts of domestic terrorism must occur within the United States’ jurisdiction, which is the case in the Las Vegas massacre. However, federal law further requires that an act of domestic terrorism be intended to do one of three things: intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of the government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

Since the attack was committed within the United States and violated the nation’s laws, the only element up for debate when questioning if we should label the Las Vegas massacre a domestic terrorist attack should be Paddock’s intent behind the shooting. At this point in time there is still no concrete evidence to point towards a motive, so all we can do is analyze the possibilities. Paddock open fired on an unsuspecting crowd in a highly populated area. There was armed security at Mandalay Bay Hotel, where Paddock fired from, and concertgoers had a general sense of safety going into the festival. The nature and scale of this attack within a secured and dense area shatters many Americans’ sense of security, thus being an effective tactic to intimidate a civilian population.

As a tactic of intimidation, Paddock could have intended to influence government policy with the shooting. Since the attack, the debate over gun control has become more heated as Congress argues over the control of “bump stocks”, which Paddock used during the shooting. A bump stock is an attachment for a semiautomatic rifle that harnesses the kickback felt when firing a weapon and uses that energy to bump the firearm back and forth between the user’s shoulder and trigger finger, which allows for a more rapid fire. A bill proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein that bans the use of bump stocks has generally received support from both Republicans and Democrats. However, there is still heavy opposition from representatives who want to avoid any political backlash from supporting the bill. An attack as tragic as Las Vegas was sure to spark a controversial debate over gun control, and Paddock could have intended to influence one side of the debate with the shooting.

There is no sign of the attack affecting the conduct of the government. However, we see that Paddock could have intended to either intimidate a civilian population, or influence government policy through intimidation. It makes little sense to label the tragedy a terrorist attack at this moment, but depending on what investigators uncover we may very well be looking at an act of domestic terrorism. The only element that determines what history will call the Las Vegas massacre is Paddock’s motive. There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate, but they cannot overshadow the most frightening possibility of all. This attack could have been committed by a man with no motive. It is truly terrifying that tragedies on the scale of Las Vegas can arise out of the chaotic mind of a deranged monster. Whatever the case may be, all eyes will remain on the investigators in Las Vegas until a motive is discovered.


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