According to the much of the media, including New York Times, and Business Insider, the biggest mystery in the Las Vegas shooting is Stephen Paddock’s motive in killing 59 people and injuring over 500.
But here’s the thing. In a practical sense, motive doesn’t really matter. While America averages a mass shooting per day—which feels crushingly common—the behavior is so rare on a population basis that, as Jesse Singal argues at New York Magazine, the math just doesn’t work out for forecasting. You can’t predict who becomes a killer, no matter how much you know about the profile of a would-be shooter. “It should be hammered home, over and over and over, that all else being equal, the rarer a type of behavior is, the harder it is to predict who will do it,” Singal writes. “It is thankfully rare, even in the United States, for someone to commit a mass shooting.”
Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who studies mass shootings, says that there’s only one realistic pathway for meaningfully bringing down the number of shootings and their damage. It’s gun control. In fact, Appelbaum was so fatigued by journalists asking for psychological solutions when shootings happened that he prepared a one-size-fits-all statement to give to reporters looking for his perspective whenever the next mass killing (predictably) dominated the American news cycle. “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done,” he tells New York. “We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”
While the US isn’t more violent than other parts of the developed world, America does have more murders—see here and here—which, to Appelbaum, can be chalked up to how easy it is to get guns. Unsurprisingly, states with more guns have more gun deaths.
The solution isn’t to obsessively focus on motives, it’s to treat guns like any other public health risk, and study (and regulate) them. But the firearms lobby has blockaded funding for the CDC to do that incredibly necessary research. In Australia, the murder and suicide rate plummeted after regulation were put in place following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, where 35 were killed and 23 wounded. Meanwhile, in the US—especially Nevada—it’s incredibly easy to get a gun. Thoughts and prayers don’t do it; legislation does.