I have never been to Las Vegas. Reno, Lake Tahoe, always on business, with maybe a bit of pleasure on the side; but never Vegas. I have been to Jonesboro countless times, almost invariably on business, and almost invariably it was pleasurable.
One particular journey to the Craighead County seat (and the follow-up visits it necessitated) will never leave me, as the events that took me to Jonesboro, to Westside School, are fixed in the community's consciousness.
Cement — it is difficult to remove stains from cement.
Bloodstains, especially. By the time I arrived at Westside Middle School, almost 20 years ago now, the custodial staff had washed away the blood of 15 human beings gunned down by a pair of kids, barely adolescents. They had taken ten firearms from the homes of relatives, triggered a fire alarm and then turned the weapons against other pupils and faculty in the courtyard that became a killing field. A teacher and four students died of their wounds.
Hours later the blood was gone, but the concrete was its own commentary.
One needn't travel to Las Vegas to conclude that there is very little grass there save in its suburbs, and its fabled "Strip" is a sea of concrete. After all, save for the odd urban oasis, most large cities are pure pavement.
So, once the police finish their inch-by-inch forensic examination of the giant crime scene created last Sunday night and give the go-ahead, the maintenance folks will come in and try to hose away, pressure-wash, what remains of the blood and the stains. It won't be quick nor easy: 600 casualties — including, at last count, 59 fatalities — result in a lot of bloodstains.
The Westside shooters were 11 and 13; the Nevada triggerman was 64. The school shooting took perhaps 30 seconds. The Las Vegas killer had about 30 minutes. At most a hundred or so "targets" were available to the two kids; the man on the 32nd floor of a casino hotel had more than 20,000.
And, as opposed to the relative handful of guns employed in the Jonesboro case, Stephen Paddock had at his disposal two dozen, a staggering arsenal of weaponry including semi-automatic rifles that, it seems clear, had been altered to fire in fully automatic mode. Machine guns, in other words. The authorities calculated that 30 rounds were fired at Westside; the Vegas madman fired hundreds.
The Westside shooters: both were jailed in a youth facility until released at age 21, having served seven and nine years, respectively; one has since been in repeated trouble with the law and the other has come fleetingly close, having given false information on a state government form. For a concealed weapons permit. Paddock killed himself.
In the two decades bookended by Jonesboro and Las Vegas, the slaughter on playgrounds and in classrooms, in public and private schools and university campuses, in workplaces — the carnage has been replayed time and again with tens of thousands dead. An occasional bombing, some knifings, a bludgeoning; but the tools of mass homicide in the U.S. are as close as your nearest licensed dealer.
Arkansas's capital city has seen no fewer than 45 murders this year, the lopsided majority of the killings committed with firearms. In the same period, the U.S. has recorded more than 12,000 gun homicides. On the same day that Stephen Paddock broke windows in his high-rise suite and opened fire on country music fans 300 yards distant, 23 Americans in other cities fell victim to gunfire.
With the Las Vegas investigation intensifying, an e-mail entitled "just can't get my head around this" arrived from Ray Hanley, former director of the Arkansas Medicaid program (which, in his two decades in the position, used millions of your tax dollars to treat gunshot wounds).
Quoting from a new medical study using government reports, Hanley related that in fewer than the past ten years, hospital emergency rooms treated some 700,000 firearms victims, slightly more than 25 of every 100,000 admissions. The percentage may seem small but is deceptive: gunshot wounds are enormously expensive to address. The aggregate medical cost: $25 billion.
Local and federal police in Las Vegas are busy at the grim and probably futile business of peering into the mind of a mindless carnivore.
The families of his prey now are about the heartbreaking task of burying their dead, as are other families in other cities whose kin and friends have fallen in recent days, or shortly will.
It's not over.
Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.