After Paddock killed 58 people in 2017, the FBI said he had no political motives. The evidence demands a second look.
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.
Some violent, far-right extremists, including the attacker in last year’s mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques, point as inspiration to the notion of “accelerationism”: their desire to create violent chaos in society, even a civil war. While that term hadn’t yet taken hold when Paddock opened fire on October 1, 2017 — and, as his final act, shot himself dead — his anti-government hostilities, his right-wing ideologies, and his violent rampage that night might qualify him as one of the first in a new wave of accelerationists.
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.
Paddock’s anti-government hostilities, his right-wing ideologies, and his violent rampage that night might qualify him as one of the first in a new wave of accelerationists.
The FBI’s silence on a possible motive is unsatisfying. Attacks carried out by Muslims and Middle Easterners are routinely labeled as terrorism inside the United States, while many of those carried out by non-Muslims like Paddock — a 64-year-old white man — often are not. It was not until earlier this year, after mounting evidence from outside studies, that FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged, belatedly, that the bureau considered the rising threat of violent domestic extremists to be on a par with foreign and Islamic-inspired terrorist groups like the Islamic State. Then came the news earlier this month from a high-ranking Homeland Security whistleblower who said he had been pressured to downplay the threat of white supremacists and other intelligence that might be frowned upon by the Trump White House. Another high-ranking Homeland Security official made the same claim in a Forbes interview last month.
With the three-year anniversary of the Las Vegas massacre a week away, Paddock’s motives deserve closer scrutiny by the FBI and others — not only for understanding the rampage itself, but also for understanding a string of other deadly attacks carried out by right-wing extremists in recent months in response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.
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.”
“He was animated about the government and the tax system. 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.”
Another witness interviewed in the investigation gave a similar account of Paddock’s fixation on anti-government conspiracy theories. A 27-year-old Las Vegas sex worker, who said she spent many hours drinking and gambling with Paddock, described him as “paranoid” and said that he would often rant about the American government’s orchestration of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Paddock, a high-stakes gambler at Las Vegas casinos, also held views on the burden of taxes — which might seem ironic, since he had worked for the IRS early in his career. In fact, the shooter’s younger brother, Eric Paddock, believed that Stephen, who was trained as an accountant, had gone to work for the IRS years earlier “in order to learn how to hide income,” according to the Las Vegas Metro Police Department’s final report on the shooting. Another brother, Bruce Paddock, recalled that Stephen would “juice” the family’s tax returns to get back thousands of dollars in refunds.
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.
Trying to decipher the motives of a mass murderer like Paddock is no mere academic exercise; it is vital that law enforcement officials and policymakers are able to identify warnings signs and institute prevention strategies to try to head off the next attack. Too often, the system has fallen short, with clear warnings missed — and lives lost. Understanding Paddock’s motivations becomes even more critical in light of the violent responses to Black Lives Matters protests by a number of far-right agitators who, like Paddock, appear motivated by a passion for guns, extremist ideologies, and a desire to “wake up Americans” to their perceived plight.
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.
Prosecutors have linked the boogaloos and armed, right-wing militia groups to a series of violent episodes, including the fatal shootings of law enforcement officers in Oakland and Santa Cruz, Calif., the shooting of a Black Lives Matter protester in Albuquerque, N.M., the killing of two people at a protest in Kenosha, Wis., and — in Las Vegas itself — the attempted bombing of another protest.
Another far-right group called Patriot Prayer has been involved in a series of increasingly volatile and sometimes violent clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters in its support for Trump. One of Patriot Prayer’s members, Aaron Danielson, was shot and killed in a Portland demonstration during an apparent confrontation with Michael Reinoehl, who was later killed by federal authorities in the state of Washington. Danielson’s death is the first known killing carried out by anyone affiliated with antifa during the recent wave of unrest.
Admittedly, the idea that Stephen Paddock’s rampage in Las Vegas may have been driven by right-wing extremism still leaves many questions unanswered — such as why he would pick a country music festival as his target or what finally drove him to violence. After all, there are plenty of conspiracy-minded, gun-toting tax haters who never kill anyone.
Paddock left behind no note or manifesto explaining his actions — unlike a number of recent mass murderers motivated by far-right grievances who wrote screeds that laid out their hatreds. That list includes Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; Patrick Crusius, accused of killing 23 people last year at a Walmart in El Paso frequented by many Latinos; and Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people last year at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In his New Zealand screed last year, Tarrant, a white supremacist angry at immigrants, wrote of his adherence to the idea of using violence to speed accelerationism and destabilize society, giving the idea a much wider platform on social media. This violent extremist concept has existed for decades, but those on the far right in the United States — both anti-government extremists and white supremacists — have reinvigorated this concept in recent years in an attempt to foment violence and civil war.
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.
We asked officials at both the FBI and the Las Vegas Police Department whether they believed that Paddock may have been motivated by extreme right-wing ideologies, given what is now known about his beliefs. The FBI and Las Vegas police referred us back to their 2018 reviews of the attack, which were unable to pinpoint a motive. In releasing that report, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said at the time: “What we have been able to answer are the questions of who, what, when, where and how. What we have not been able to definitively answer is the ‘why’ Stephen Paddock committed this act.”
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.
Update: September 22, 2020
This story has been updated with comment from the FBI that was provided after publication.