Why do we still not know the motive behind the deadliest mass shooting in US history?

OPINIONS LAST UPDATED : 23 MAY

This Friday (24 May) marks the 600th day since the Route 91 Harvest music festival mass shooting occurred in Las Vegas on Sunday 1 October 2017. The FBI and Nevada authorities have still not established why 64 year-old Stephen Paddock committed the worst mass shooting in US history, which killed 58 concert-goers from the window in his 32nd storey suite at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

Paddock’s movements in the week before the tragedy have been captured in several hours of CCTV, and they suggest his motive for the mass shooting he undertook could be quite different from what is typically seen among mass killers.

In this comment piece Craig Jackson, a Professor of Psychology at Birmingham City University who specialises in studying mass shootings, tries to find the motive behind this terrible landmark in US history.

“The Las Vegas mass shooting is beset by many numbers and statistics; over the course of 6 days leading up to the shooting, Paddock smuggled 24 weapons into his two hotel suites; he opened fire on 22,000 concert-goers from the window of suite 135 on the 32nd floor of the hotel; he fired in excess of 1,100 rounds between 22:05 and 22:15; he only used two weapons from his arsenal and left over 5,000 unused rounds in his suite.

“A total of 58 people died and a further 851 people were injured by gunfire. Paddock conducted his attack from one of two suites he was occupying at the Mandalay Bay Hotel that he was given as a courtesy by the hotel, as he was a proficient video poker gambler, well known for gambling around $20,000 per night in the casino.

“Paddock used a heavy hammer to break two windows in his suite overlooking the Route 91 Harvest musical festival concert below, and commenced firing at 22:05. Paddock fired 12 distinct bursts of gunfire. In addition to shooting at concertgoers, Paddock also fired eight bullets at a large jet fuel tank located at McCarran International Airport 600 metres away, on the other side of the concert venue from where he was situated. Two of those bullets struck the exterior of the tank, with one bullet penetrating the tank, which failed to ignite the contents which were kerosene based.

School of Social Sciences

Birmingham City University

“During the shooting, a hotel security guard who approached Paddock’s suite was shot through the door into the hallway, and survived. Armed police enter Paddock’s suite at 23:20, over an hour after the firing ceased, to find Paddock dead, having shot himself with the one handgun he had in his arsenal.

“Paddock was quite old for a mass shooter at 64 years, as typically US mass shooters are aged somewhere between their late teens and early forties. It is quite unusual to see a mass shooter in their mid-sixties. Paddock was also quite unlike other mass shooters in other respects: he was not bearing a grudge against any authorities or organisation at the time; he was not politically motivated; he was not struggling to cope with any significant difficulties in his personal life; he had a long term girlfriend and a family (a brother and his mother) and he was financially very well off with a personal income of $2 million which allowed him to retire early and spend a lot of his time playing high-stakes video poker in many casinos. He certainly did not fit the typical psychological and demographic profiles of a typical grudge-based mass shooter, and this lack of apparent motive has stymied the FBI investigations.

“On 3 August 2018, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo told a press conference coinciding with the release of the LVMPD Criminal Investigative Report of the mass shooting, that the ten-month investigation had revealed no evidence of conspiracy or a second gunman, and that the gunman's motive had not been definitely determined. Sheriff Lombardo also said that “we have been able to answer . . . the questions of who, what, when, where and how . . . we have not been able to definitively answer is why Stephen Paddock committed this act.”

“The FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit report in January 2019 stated "there was no single or clear motivating factor" for the mass shooting. In their key list of findings in the report, the FBI found that Paddock had no identifiable grievance but did have a desire to die by suicide. The report stated “Paddock was not motivated by a grievance against any particular Las Vegas casino or hotel, nor was it against the Route 91 Harvest music festival, or anyone killed or injured in the rampage”.

“The FBI determined his attack "was neither directed, inspired, nor enabled by ideologically motivated persons or groups”. They concluded by stating that Paddock's actions were inspired by obtaining "a certain degree of infamy via a mass casualty attack” and that he was planning a suicide as he experienced a decline in mental and physical health and his finances over the last years of his life. The account given by the FBI about Paddock’s decline is at odds with those given by his girlfriend and his brother and others who knew him. He was certainly far from impoverishment.

  • Monday 25 September - Paddock checked into suite 32-135 at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, and the adjoining side room 32-134 via the VIP desk. He spent two hours in a sushi bar there before unloading five cases from his minivan and taking them to his suite via the service elevator. He spent four hours in his suite before leaving the Mandalay Bay Hotel at 21:40 with two suitcases in his minivan, and drove one hour to his home in Mesquite (North East of Las Vegas) where he stayed overnight.
  • Tuesday 26 September - Paddock spent most of the day at his home and at 20:00 drove back towards Las Vegas and stopped at The Ogden hotel complex on the way. Paddock had previously checked into some rooms there on Friday 22 September. That Friday through to Sunday saw the ‘Life is Beautiful Festival’ in Las Vegas and Paddock’s computer records showed he had searched online for the festival line-up and details of the acts who were performing. In the evening, Paddock returned to the Mandalay Bay Hotel and moved seven suitcases up to his suite (making twelve in total). He then gambled in a casino for eight hours overnight into Wednesday morning.
  • Wednesday 27 September - During Paddock’s overnight gambling stint, like the rest of his time there, his interactions were limited just to hotel staff. He spent most of Wednesday in his suite, then left the Mandalay Bay Hotel with two suitcases and drove to The Ogden, and then onto his home in Mesquite and stayed overnight.
  • Thursday 28 September - Paddock drove from his home to a gun store in Mesquite and purchased a .308 bolt-action rifle, which he then took to a nearby gun range and fired. Paddock drove back to the Mandalay Bay Hotel and took a white container and three more cases up to his suites. He then gambled overnight in the high stakes section of the casino, into Friday morning.
  • Friday 29 September - Paddock stayed in his suite until 15:00, then checked into his adjoining suite using the name of his girlfriend, Marylou Danlu, who he had just wired $100,000 to while she was visiting her family in the Philippines. The size of the transaction was nothing unusual for him, as he had done this many times before. Paddock instructed room service staff to leave any subsequent food trollies in his room (he would later go on to place a baby monitor camera on the trollies and place them in the hallway outside his suite so he could view who was approaching his rooms). Later that evening Paddock drove home to Mesquite and stayed there overnight. At 20:00 that evening, the Route 91 Harvest music festival opened in the showgrounds opposite the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
  • Saturday 30 September -  Leaving home early, Paddock drove back to the Mandalay Bay Hotel and arrived there at 06:00 with two more cases that he took to his suite. Sometime after 12:00 he placed a ‘do not disturb’ sign on his door and declined further housekeeping services. He went back downstairs to the valet car park and retrieved a further two bags that he took back up to his suites, and then gambled some more in the casino. Paddock made a final trip back to his home that night, and returned to the Mandalay Bay Hotel at 03:00 on Sunday.
  • Sunday 1 October -  Paddock gambled until 07:37 and headed back to his suites. At 12:16 he went to the hotel parking garage and brought two cases and a small bag back into his suites. This now totalled twenty-one cases, a laptop, a small bag and a white container in his suites. The last time Paddock was captured on CCTV was 12:29 as he left the elevator on floor 32. Electronic records show that he spent several hours in his suites opening and closing the doors between both suites repeatedly, before deploying the food trollies with the baby camera outside his door and dead-bolting the door to his suite at 21:36.

“The details of the attack and the movements of Paddock in the week beforehand give many clues about what he may have originally intended to do. It seems quite apparent that Paddock spent the week making several trips in his van, moving an arsenal of weapons, a few cases at a time, from The Ogden to the Mandalay Bay Hotel. It seems quite likely given Paddock’s online actions and his booking into The Ogden a week before, that he had an interest in the ‘Life is Beautiful’ festival. This interest may possibly have been because it was selected as the original target for his attack, or perhaps it was for a dry-run to check the logistics of smuggling his arsenal into a downtown hotel.

“The three-day ‘Life is Beautiful’ festival was an event with many different types of music and shows, without any political or social drivers, other than promoting positive economic development in Las Vegas. It was not affiliated with any particular cultural movement, and the hundreds of acts and headliners were so varied as to make the festival not representative or partisan to of any particular type of music or culture. It was also a festival that was held at several different venues and locations concurrently in downtown Las Vegas, and this is perhaps what made Paddock decide not to conduct his attack there.

“For someone like Paddock who was not a proficient marksman or accomplished shooter, the ‘Life is Beautiful’ festival was too nebulous to be a worthwhile target given his limited abilities, but the Route 91 Harvest music festival was a much easier target. For Paddock, he was clearly motivated by achieving maximum carnage – suggested by the unnecessarily large size of his smuggled arsenal and that he took the risk of moving it all to another hotel. The layout of the ‘Life is Beautiful’ festival would not help Paddock achieve maximum carnage. The Route 91 Harvest music festival occupied 15 acres, and with a very high concentration of people in that space, it was clearly worth the risk for Paddock to move his arsenal over there.

“Many spree shooters have used distraction techniques when conducting their attacks – often creating an explosion or fire at a location away from their main attack location, thereby keeping local emergency services and armed responders busy elsewhere. Other attackers have used fires or explosions as a way to flush people out of a building or venue, and to funnel them into the path of the attacker, enabling them to achieve maximum fatalities and casualties.

“Paddock’s minivan was subsequently found to contain sufficient levels of ammonium nitrate as well as 23kg of an explosive, Tannerite, but when found, they had not been assembled into any working viable explosive device. Paddock’s van also contained a further 1,600 rounds of ammunition. The inclusion of this equipment being left behind in the van suggests he may have had need for it at the original attack he may have planned at ‘Life is Beautiful’, but that there was no need for a distraction explosion at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, given its proximity to his base.

“In Paddock we saw a wealthy older male, retired and active and in good health, with no obvious grudges or grievances against society, and no desire to take revenge against his community. He spent his days playing high stakes video poker and occasionally legally purchasing weapons (while not a keen shooter himself). His relationship with his girlfriend was stable, and he bought her a surprise airline ticket to the Philippines two weeks before the attack and then transferred $100,000 to her so she could buy a house there. His only interaction with the police was for a minor traffic infringement years ago that was settled out of court. He held a pilot’s licence and friends described him as generous, methodological and intelligent.

“Paddock was taking anti-anxiety medication (Valium) in the months before the attack, but such minor psychological issues are mitigated by the fact that Paddock was amassing guns long before he was taking any medication. Paddock's gun purchases increased between October 2016 and September 2017, and he legally purchased a total of 55 firearms (mostly rifles) and a number of firearm accessories, although he had been buying and selling firearms since 1982.

“Could it be that Paddock was growing bored of a life without any meaningful purpose or labour? Perhaps he was finding the life of a comfortable man to be futile and without substance. As a gambler and chancer, perhaps he simply required another high, and a mass killing and the planning and subterfuge involved could perhaps have been ideal for him.

“In 1924, the novel ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ was written by Richard Connell, and then made into a hit movie in 1934, with many remakes and similar films made in the decades that followed. The novel told the story of a wealthy man (General Zaroff) who, bored of hunting game, moves to an island that is infamous for shipwrecks. There, he spends his days hunting shipwrecked sailors and tourists who may happen upon his island, as if they themselves were game animals. Because of the subversive nature of the novel, it had been a touchstone of literature for many teenagers in middle schools and high schools in the US since it was published.

“The idea of a wealthy man who is refined and proper, but who also contains a desire to kill, was a suggestion by Connell that men possess deathly instincts that are only inhibited by society and law. This is not unlike Freudian theory of course. The killer Zaroff is only able to undertake his ‘hobby’ because he lives outside of the parameters of the civilised world.

“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Police Department, the high profile ‘Zodiac’ serial murderer referenced the novel in a cryptogram including the reason behind his crimes: “I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun that killing wild game in the forrest (sic) because man is the most dangerous animal of all”. Similarly a high profile serial murderer operating in the 1970s and 1980s in Alaska, Robert Hansen, had hunted down and killed almost twenty female victims who he had kidnapped specifically for his sadistic hunting pleasure.

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