Caleb Keeter, guitarist for country outfit the Josh Abbott Band, wrote a living will on Sunday night. Hiding with his bandmates and crew in the safety of a tour bus after playing a set at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, while machine gun bullets hailed down, “I felt like I wasn’t going to live through the night,” he wrote on Twitter the following morning. “I’ve been a proponent of the Second Amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was.”
That change of heart was prompted by the worst mass shooting in the U.S., which killed at least 59 concert attendees and injured more than 500. It was the overwhelming sentiment throughout the live entertainment industry, which in recent years has seen more than one terrorist act of this kind — the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, Orlando’s Pulse dance club in 2016, and Ariana Grande’s Manchester Arena concert in May. But although the Islamic Front claimed responsibility for the incident, police did not immediately call the mass shooting a terrorist attack. The lone assailant, identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, was shooting from a window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and was believed to have shot himself.
The attack sent a chill through the live entertainment industry, in which security is a top concern, considering crowds that routinely surpass thousands of revelers. Exactly one week before, the city was celebrating the Life Is Beautiful festival over a three-day downtown gathering of music, art and culture. The event was just one of the dozens hosted in Las Vegas on any given weekend. The iHeartRadio Music Festival, featuring such acts as Halsey and One Direction star Niall Horan at the same open-air location as Route 91, was running concurrently.
“Safety is always the number one priority — there are no ifs, ands or buts,” says Life Is Beautiful head of music and live performances Craig Nyman. “We’re in this industry because we want people to come and have that amazing experience — to relish that moment with their favorite band.”
Chris Robinette, CEO of Prevent Advisors, the security-consulting division of Oak View Group, says there is increased concern from artists and managers about heightening safety: “The entire ecosystem is secured to the best of the industry’s ability, but these attacks have manifested themselves with vehicle rammings — like in London — indoor active shooters like the Bataclan; explosive devices in Manchester; and now an active shooter from a distance in Las Vegas. How do we mitigate that?”
Adds Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds: “If someone has enough hate in their heart, they’re going to try to find a way to act upon it. There’s only so much you can do.”
Oak View’s Robinette says the key is more collaboration with local law enforcement, as well as “coordination with other security entities in adjacent buildings.” He adds: “Concert promoters and managers will have to ask themselves, ‘Is our staff prepared and trained for an active shooter? How do we evacuate? How do we provide immediate care? And have we rehearsed this with local law enforcement?’ No one is suggesting you can reduce these risks to zero, because you can’t. But you can mitigate them to the highest degree possible. I assure you that [professional sports] is having that conversation right now about how they offset those risks.”
That means “bumping up the security even more,” says Reynolds, whose Vegas-based band played the city just two nights earlier and had just wrapped a show at the Hollywood Bowl when it received word of the shooting. “We’re going to ensure we do everything in our power to make our concerts a safe space. I refuse to let an individual have any power of putting fear into my heart about my career choice.”
The reenergized debate on gun control is made even more relevant considering the audience for country music — the Route 91 festival featured such superstars as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen — is primarily a red state one. Yet it does little to assuage those impacted by such a tragedy, either directly or indirectly.
“Even though Vegas is seen as this tourist destination, there’s a real sense of community there, and pride,” Reynolds told Variety. “My best friend from middle school was [at the concert] bartending. He was on the phone sobbing, telling me he barely got out of it. He hid behind the bar, and right when the gun shots paused, he jumped over and said there were people all over on the ground. He ran, hopped a fence and got into a stranger’s car.” Reynolds’ brother is an anesthesiologist at a Las Vegas hospital who described a “devastating” scene. “People were coming in all night with gunshot wounds to their extremities and shrapnel,” says the singer.
“In so many ways, it felt personal,” said iHeartRadio’s Bobby Bones, the top syndicated radio personality in the country format, who had played the festival as a musical/comedy act on Saturday night. “It’s such a fan-based genre. It went very quickly from ‘Hey, is everyone OK — meaning the artists — to ‘What can we do to help the people that were hurt?’”
As shocking and unprecedented as the shootings were, there were few signs that it would change the dynamics of the typical partisan battle lines that form after a massacre — that this could be the turning point that galvanizes action on Capitol Hill.
President Trump called for unity and observed a moment of silence, but even Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) stopped short of calling for legislation. Instead, he pointed to the motives of the assailant. “We have to reckon with the fact that this man was able to acquire an arsenal of military grade weapons,” said Schumer in a somber statement from the floor of the Senate.
Just outside the Capitol, retired astronaut Mark Kelly stood with his wife, Gabby Giffords — a shooting victim herself — and asked, “If not now, when? … Thoughts and prayers aren’t going to stop the next shooting. Only action and leadership will.”
After Giffords was shot during a constituent event in Tucson in 2011, there was no significant action from Congress. Nor was there after the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 children and six adults were shot. Last year, Democrats in the House staged a sit-in on the floor to demand gun violence legislation move forward in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting, but again, that did not happen. Nevada state law does not require a permit to purchase shotguns or handguns, and there is no legislation in place restricting magazine capacity on automatic rifles.
“There have been 273 mass shooting incidents in America in 2017. How many more of these tragedies must we endure before we enact common-sense policies that place reasonable restrictions on firearm access?” asked Kurt Bardella, who authors a daily country music tip sheet and is also the former spokesman for Breitbart News, the Daily Caller and several congressional Republicans. “Clearly doing nothing isn’t working,” he added. “The reality is, for meaningful reform to have a viable chance, more people need to reevaluate their position on gun reform, embrace a change of heart and speak out.”
With reporting by Jem Aswad, Steve Baltin, Ted Johnson and Chris Willman