A scary turn: Las Vegas may be first mass shooting using an automatic weapon

 In U.S.
Stephen Paddock’s lethal attack on a Las Vegas country music festival Sunday night was distinguished from most mass shootings by two features: the size of the arsenal he smuggled into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and the great height from which he shot.

With a cache of 23 firearms, most of them powerful, Paddock, 64, smashed the windows of his 32nd-floor hotel room and then, from high above the Las Vegas Strip, sprayed bullets down on 20,000 people listening to country music star Jason Aldean.

One of the weapons Paddock apparently used in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history was an AK-47-type rifle, with a stand to steady it for firing, according to people familiar with the case.

Investigators believe at least one of the guns functioned as if it were fully automatic and are now working to determine whether he modified it or others to be capable of spitting out a high volume of fire just by holding down the trigger, people familiar with the case said.

“The ATF hasn’t evaluated them yet,” Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said at a news conference Monday evening.

But video from the attack suggests Paddock may have used at least one fully automatic rifle, marking the first time such a weapon has been wielded by a public mass shooter in the United States, experts said.

“I really can’t recall another case where one has been used,” said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist who studies mass shooters and believes Paddock was armed with an automatic weapon when he killed at least 59 people and set off chaos that injured more than 500.

“It doesn’t take that much imagination to know what automatic gunfire sounds like,” Fox added. “Anyone who has seen a war movie or an ‘Untouchables’ episode knows what it sounds like.”

Police found 12 weapons with bump-fire stocks in the shooter’s hotel room. These devices can be used to make semi-automatic weapons perform like machine guns. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

To Fox and others, the Las Vegas rampage represents a frightening turn in the nation’s struggle to stop mass shootings.

In addition to Paddock’s choice of weaponry, mass shooting experts were struck by his decision to shoot at the concertgoers from high above, rather than walking through the crowd or firing from a nearby secluded spot on the ground.

The tactic echoed two earlier mass shootings, most notably Charles Whitman’s 1966 attack from atop the University of Texas Tower. The ex-Marine sharpshooter killed 17 and wounded more than 30, including a pregnant student shot in the belly.

A decade later, Michael Soles, a 19-year-old dumped by his girlfriend, chose the top of a Holiday Inn in Wichita to shoot and kill three people while wounding eight others.

But Paddock was far higher than either Whitman or Soles. Lombardo estimated that he was shooting at victims at least 500 yards away.

Investigators are working to determine if Paddock modified the AK-47 with mechanical components to make it fully automatic, which is illegal, or if he used a legal modification like an attachable crank, which depresses the trigger faster than a finger and can be bought online for as little as $40.

Automatic firearms have been heavily restricted in the United States since 1986, when Congress passed the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act.

Under the law, such weapons made before 1986 can be legally owned following a stringent background check and registration of the gun. Last year, ATF sent a letter to the National Firearms Act Trade and Collectors Association saying that 490,664 automatic weapons were registered in a government database.

Gun owners with technical know-how can illegally modify rifles to make them automatic. But the industry also sells legal add-ons that can make semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15 mimic automatic fire.

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