By John L. Smith
October 12, 2017
IDEAS
Smith is journalist based in Las Vegas.

If you’re looking for a little high-caliber action in Las Vegas, baby, you won’t have to travel far from the Strip to find it.

Locked and loaded, the scantily-clad shooting-range amazon stares down from an outdoor billboard while fondling an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, or something even longer and harder. Careful, big boy, it’s only an advertisement.

As it has with so many American vices and obsessions, Las Vegas years ago found a way to profit off America’s gun fascination by marketing indoor shooting ranges to tourists like so many Second Amendment porno shops and using gun shows to help fill its vast casino-resort convention halls. They’re popular not only with gun enthusiasts, but also with the curious Peeping Tom types visiting from nations not awash in weaponry, gun violence, and senseless gore.

I don’t expect they’ll be padlocked, or even lose much business, in the wake of the slaughter at a Strip country music concert. Las Vegas has at least temporarily become synonymous with record gun violence, but those who want to view it as something other than the house-of-mirrors reflection of modern America are kidding themselves.

No city gets the Puritan scold’s finger as often as Las Vegas, and perhaps none deserves it more, but to reduce retired CPA Stephen Paddock’s grisly assault on innocent people to a green-felt morality play does a disservice to the murdered and maimed and misses a more nuanced story. Beneath its audacious marketing, Las Vegas is an entertainment factory town, and today it weeps and mourns. Although like modern America itself the motto here should be “Whatever the traffic will bear,” for more than 40 million visitors a year it produces a lot of good times.

Our nation’s nihilistic gun obsession and Las Vegas’ own image as the Western World’s hedonistic messaging places large logistical challenges in a place that relies so heavily on big crowds and the feel of footloose freedom. Local police and fire departments prepare endlessly for large-scale terrorist attacks and mass-casualty incidents.

The casino resorts are just as obsessed with security. Private armies of officers patrol the grounds. And surveillance is practically everywhere. What happens in the Vegas tourists experience is almost always captured on camera.

Around this super-charged Westworld, the chaos is largely controlled. But that’s the problem with a modern America swimming in firearms and bathed in blood. There’s really no way to prevent a Stephen Paddock from going to the window and finding a crowd.

Southern Nevada, the vast place outside the tourism corridor, is a community of 2 million whose residents were staggered by the mortgage crisis and the great recession, but have begun to regain their footing. It is a place of ethnic diversity, of union activism, and boomtown mentality. It is fueled not only by billions in tourist dollars and the heavy scent of vice, but also by the energy of immigrant culture and the tenacity it takes to carve out a community in a hostile environment.

Las Vegas is more than the cynical poetry of the gun-obsessed Hunter S. Thompson and the dark saints of Steely Dan. Drug-fueled visions seem almost understated on the Strip, and you certainly can buy a thrill here, but the crowd of 22,000 at the Route 91 Harvest Festival was just out for a good time before the start of another work week. Real people, many of them locals, were at that concert when Paddock began firing from a window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

Historians might wonder whether the carnage was somehow inevitable in a place whose main industry was forged by men whose retirement plans featured bullets to the head and butcher knives across the throat. One famously bragged about doing “his own killings” as if it were fixing a flat tire in lieu of calling AAA. Others buried their bloody pasts and connections to infamy in good public relations and occasional philanthropy. Today the 5 O’Clock shadow of the old Las Vegas has been eclipsed by men who lead publicly traded corporations, are friends of the President, and shave much closer.

The real Las Vegas is weeping and mourning. It doesn’t take an academic, auteur, or casino king to comprehend that even this most horrific of violent acts is unlikely to change the way we see the Strip.

If anything the murder and mayhem in Las Vegas is a reminder that it’s not the outsider Americans should fear most, but that twisted face in the carnival mirror who stares back at us every time we dare look.

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