Three years after the worst mass shooting in recent American history, the FBI has yet to identify a motive explaining what could have driven Stephen Paddock to open fire on a crowded music festival from a Las Vegas hotel window, killing 58 people and injuring many hundreds more. But the FBI, which has been notoriously slow to recognize right-wing threats in recent years, may have ignored a politically inconvenient explanation: Paddock, in our view, fit the profile of a far-right political extremist bent on sowing violence in society.
Paddock appeared fixated on three pillars of right-wing extremism: anti-government conspiracy theories, threats to Second Amendment rights, and overly burdensome taxes. For instance, one witness told Las Vegas police that Paddock was “kind of fanatical” about his anti-government conspiracies and that he believed someone had to “wake up the American public” and get them to arm themselves in response to looming threats. Family members and associates of Paddock painted a picture of a man who loathed restrictions on gun ownership and believed that the Second Amendment was under siege, according to our review of their statements to investigators after the shooting and other documents compiled by the authorities.
The FBI and Las Vegas police each spent many months searching for a motive in the Las Vegas attack, and both agencies claimed to come up empty in the end. There was “no single or clear motivating factor behind Paddock’s attack,” an FBI panel concluded in a report released in January 2019, and it found “no evidence that Paddock’s attack was motivated by any ideological or political beliefs.” The FBI said that “throughout his life, Paddock went to great lengths to keep his thoughts private, and that extended to his final thinking about this mass murder,” much like many violent lone actors before him.
To be sure, factors like Paddock’s declining mental health or an apparent downturn in his high-stakes gambling could also have played a part in his twisted thinking that night. We may never know for certain what would drive a man to barricade himself inside the Mandalay Bay resort with nearly two-dozen high-powered weapons and commit an act of such horrendous violence. But consider what is known about Paddock’s deep-set political beliefs and grievances on issues like guns and taxes.
Paddock “had an obsession with guns” and would become angry when challenged on the Second Amendment, according to Adam LeFevre, who dated the sister of Paddock’s partner. Paddock “made it very clear he would have no part of gun ownership restrictions,” said LeFevre, who got a glimpse of Paddock’s well-stocked gun room during a tour of his home, in another interview. Indeed, by the time of the attack, Paddock had amassed an arsenal of some 80 firearms, mostly assault-style rifles, in addition to stockpiling ammunition and some survivalist equipment — another glaring attribute of the far right.
“He was animated about the government and the tax system,” LeFevre told us in an email. “He was outspoken about the inadequacies and waste of the government.”
Paddock’s ardent opposition to gun restrictions bled into his embrace of a number of the debunked conspiracy theories that have helped to fuel a rise in right-wing extremism in recent years, according to the statements collected by the Las Vegas police, as well as interviews with journalists.
The month before the shooting, one unnamed associate recounted to Las Vegas police detectives that Paddock tried to bribe him into selling a gun part used to convert a semiautomatic firearm into a fully automatic machine gun, demonstrating a total disregard for federal firearms laws. When the associate refused because he said it would be illegal, Paddock reportedly became enraged and made references to a litany of anti-government conspiracy theories, including supposed plans by the Federal Emergency Management Administration to set up “detention camps” of Americans and plans for widespread confiscation of firearms. Paddock believed that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 “was just a dry run for law enforcement and military to start kickin’ down doors and confiscating guns,” the associate said.
“He was kind of fanatical about this stuff,” the associate added, quoting Paddock as saying that “somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves.”
While the FBI has been reluctant to label many attacks by far-right figures as terrorism, outside academics and researchers who track terrorism have filled that void in recent years, compiling data on the growing amount of far-right violence. The managers of two exhaustive databases on terrorism incidents — the START program at the University of Maryland, which works with the Department of Homeland Security, and the Center for Investigative Reporting — decided to include Paddock’s Las Vegas massacre as an act of domestic terrorism, even though the FBI does not classify it that way.
President Donald Trump, with little evidence, has tried repeatedly to blame antifa and “left-wing” protesters for organized violence surrounding the protests. But in most cases of violence, evidence on the ground so far points instead to far-right, anti-government protesters — particularly members of the so-called boogaloo boys, who believe in conspiracies about the government’s confiscation of guns and predict a coming civil war in America.
Both of us have examined from a close vantage point the rise of right-wing extremism — and resistance from the federal government in recognizing it. Daryl Johnson was the author of a 2009 report at DHS on the rising threat, which was retracted under political pressure by Republicans, and he has written two books on the subject. Eric Lichtblau has written about the subject extensively over the years, including an article in The Intercept in June about an intelligence report acknowledging the government’s failings in confronting the threat of domestic extremists.
People may disagree, based on the evidence, about whether Paddock should be considered part of the rogue’s gallery of ideologically inspired, right-wing killers — alongside people like Roof in Charleston and Crusius in El Paso. But the clues to his political motives certainly merit further review from law enforcement officials to help solve the mystery of what drove him to massacre those dozens of concertgoers on that October night three years ago. The families of the victims deserve it, and the government’s efforts to head off the next massacre demand it.
The vast bulk of law enforcement in the United States is aggressively supportive or the right wing, and right wing violence.
This is the case with the vile spawn of J. Edgar Hoover as well.
I’m sure that they will mention right wing violence when there is absolutely no other alternative.
They are far more measured when it’s not a black or a brown perp.