You’ll find little in the way of silver linings in Parkland, Florida, this week, where a gunman killed 17 people and injured 15 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Nor will you find them in Las Vegas, where a heavily armed gunman opened fire on thousands of concertgoers in October, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Beneath both of these incidents, however, is a harrowing realization that could be momentarily mistaken for the coldest of comfort: As horrific as these shootings were, the evidence suggests they could have been far worse.

This is in no way a cause for solace. Rather, it’s a disturbing reminder of the cards we’ve been dealt by feckless lawmakers who have failed to take any action whatsoever to prevent or even mitigate mass shootings. And it should serve as a warning that as long as we continue to do nothing, we are likely resigning ourselves to a fate of mass shootings more horrific than the ones we’ve experienced.

The Florida gunman reportedly entered Stoneman Douglas High on Wednesday with a legally purchased AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and “countless magazines,” each one holding 30 rounds. When he opened fire, the school went into an “active shooter” lockdown. Teachers and students barricaded doors and went into hiding. An armed school resource officer was on duty at the time but was unable to respond. By the time the shooting was over, the gunman had fired more than 100 rounds, authorities said. But for reasons we may never know, he appeared to stop shooting on his own accord.

“He tried blending into the crowd and was talking to one of my friends as he was exiting,” a student said of the shooter.

When police arrested the suspect, a former student, they found a number of loaded magazines in his backpack. On Friday, the FBI reported that it had failed to act after receiving a tip that the young man had expressed a “desire to kill people” and spoke about “the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” 

In Las Vegas, the potential for further damage was far greater. The gunman in that shooting appears to have used more than a dozen assault-style rifles in the attack, many of them outfitted with 100-round magazines and bump stocks, after-market accessories that simulate automatic fire. Although fully automatic weapons are illegal under federal law unless specially registered, the gunman’s arsenal was completely legal. According to a subsequent report by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, he “did not commit a crime until he fired the first round into the crowd.”

The gunman, shooting from the 32nd floor of a hotel, was ultimately able to fire more than 1,100 rounds into the crowd of helpless people, following a crude plan known as “the beaten zone” in military jargon, said Arthur Alphin, a ballistics expert and former West Point professor who has testified in a number of multiple shooting cases.

“This guy didn’t even have any sights on some of his guns. He wasn’t aiming them. He was just pouring bullets into that beaten zone of a couple football fields,” said Alphin. “If anybody thinks that the murdering bastard looked down there, identified a target and said, ‘That’s Sweet Pea from Arkansas. I’m going to shoot her,’ they’re full of it. He couldn’t see them, he couldn’t recognize them.”

This guy didn’t even have any sights on some of his guns. He wasn’t aiming them.
Arthur Alphin, ballistics expert

In the end, the gunman stopped shooting of his own volition before fatally shooting himself.

When police finally breached his hotel room, the shooting had been over for more than an hour. Inside, investigators found a dozen additional firearms and more than 5,000 rounds of live ammunition.

Based on the gunman’s arsenal, it appears that he could have caused more destruction if he’d been intent on it, Alphin said.

“He could have planned it far, far better, absolutely no question,” he said. “He was clearly a lunatic. He clearly knew nothing about his guns. To him, ammo was ammo and guns were guns.”

Whatever relief we might feel at hearing that is a telling indictment of our approach to mass shootings. We’ve given people easy access to all the tools they need to inflict unimaginable violence on others, leaving ourselves simply to hope that nobody will use them for that purpose. And when this inevitably fails, we often end up having little choice but to hope that mass shooters will choose to limit their carnage themselves.

By taking no action in the face of these increasingly deadly and frequent mass shootings, we now find ourselves in an arrangement in which these death tolls are often limited only by a gunman’s depravity and choice of target. As we’ve found out again and again, there will always be a more heartless person with a more sadistic plot to slaughter innocent people.

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