New documents suggest Las Vegas shooter was conspiracy theorist – what we know

Jason Wilson
The kitchenette in the hotel room of Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock’s 32nd floor room of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. Photograph: Las Vegas Metropolitan Police De/AP

What’s the latest development in the Stephen Paddock story?

Stephen Paddock was the gunman who killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more last October, when he opened fire from the window of his room at the Mandalay hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

Yesterday, following legal action from news organizations, the Las Vegas police department released a trove of documents on the investigation, including statements from witnesses and victims.

What did the document release tell us?

Mostly the documents contain harrowing accounts from victims of Stephen Paddock’s shooting spree. There is also an interview with Paddock’s wife. As police said in the press conference announcing the release, there is nothing definitive in the material about Paddock’s motives for the massacre.

But tantalizingly, people who encountered Paddock before his shooting say that he expressed conspiratorial, anti-government beliefs, which are characteristic of the far right.

In a handwritten statement, one woman says she sat near Paddock in a diner just a few days before the shooting, while out with her son. She said she heard him and a companion discussing the 25th anniversary of the Ruby Ridge standoff and the Waco siege. (Each of these incidents became touchstones for a rising anti-government militia movement in the 1990s.)

She says she heard him and his companion saying that courtroom flags with golden fringes are not real flags. The belief that gold-fringed flags are those of a foreign jurisdiction, or “admiralty flags”, is characteristic of so-called “sovereign citizens”, who believe, among other things, that the current US government, and its laws, are illegitimate.

“At the time,” her statement says, “I thought, ‘Strange guys’ and wanted to leave.”

Another man, himself currently in jail, says he met Paddock three weeks before the shooting for an abortive firearms transaction, in the carpark of a Bass Pro Shop. The man was selling schematic diagrams for an auto sear, a device that would convert semi-automatic weapons to full automatic fire. Paddock asked him to make the device for him, and the man refused.

At this point Paddock launched into a rant about “anti-government stuff … Fema camps”. Paddock said that the evacuation of people by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) after Hurricane Katrina was a a “dry run for law enforcement and military to start kickin’ down doors and ... confiscating guns”.

“Somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves,” the man says Paddock told him. “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”

Why would someone be worried about Fema camps? Isn’t Fema there to help in emergencies?

Yes, but for decades Fema has been incorporated into conspiracy theories promulgated by the anti-government far right.

Some conspiracy-minded Americans believe that Fema’s emergency mission is a cover story. The real purpose of the agency is to build and maintain concentration camps, which will house dissident “patriots” after a declaration of martial law. The supposition is that the US government will turn on its citizens under the direction of the “New World Order”.

This sounds implausible. Where did this idea come from?

The short answer is that it has been a staple of the radical right for perhaps three decades.

The first version of the Fema camp conspiracy theory was in the newsletters of the far right “Posse Comitatus” movement in the early 1980s. It was an update, or an adaptation, of the fears of foreign subversion that have animated the American populist right since the high tide of nineteenth-century nativism.

Posse Comitatus, active especially in western states from the late 1960s, believed that the US was controlled by a Jewish conspiracy, which it referred to as ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). It also promoted “Christian identity” theology, which held that the white race was the lost tribe of Israel, and that Jews were in league with Satan. At some point, they thought, America’s imposter government would round up and imprison white men.

Apart from developing anti-government beliefs, Posse Comitatus’s crank legal theories laid the groundwork for a still-flourishing “sovereign citizen” movement.

But the FEMA theory really took off during the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s. Movement entrepreneurs like John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana elaborated the story in newsletters and in his infamous “Blue Book”, which was filled with pictures allegedly showing camps, trains loaded with Russian tanks and the arrival of “black helicopters” in preparation for the supposedly imminent New World Order takeover.

Trochmann and others also claimed to have pictures of the facilities which would be used as concentration camps. These turned out to be army training grounds, federal prisons or as-yet unoccupied bases.

These theories were nevertheless prevalent in a movement that some scholars say had up to 5 million sympathizers at its height. Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he bombed a federal building in 1995, also emerged from this anti-government milieu.

Okay, but the militia movement faded away. Why are people still talking about this?

While the militia movement declined (or at least went underground) in the years following McVeigh’s bombing, the Fema conspiracy theory has been kept alive by some very canny entrepreneurs in rightwing media.

Glenn Beck might have endeavored to go legit since he started his own media company, but back in his blackboard days at Fox News, he peddled all manner of conspiracy thinking. In 2009, at the height of the Tea Party surge, he broached the topic on Fox & Friends, giving it more mainstream exposure than it had ever had.

But the most consistent and unapologetic supporter of the theory is Alex Jones, who has built a career – and a growing media empire – on pushing the idea that a global elite is subverting US sovereignty. Jones has been talking about Fema camps since he got his start on cable access TV in the 1990s.

These are just the high profile examples. The flourishing conspiracy community on platforms like YouTube and Reddit produces copious material “proving” the Fema camp theory.

Stephen Paddock would not have had to try too hard to come across assertions that the government is planning to imprison Americans.

So what does this mean for the Paddock investigation?

Police are not jumping to any conclusions about Paddock’s motives, and nor should we. But it is striking that there is evidence that he, like so many mass shooters, may have nurtured the ideas of the conspiracy-minded far right.

Often such beliefs are viewed as harmless, and increasingly they have been normalized by the success of figures like Alex Jones. But we need to start taking seriously the possibility that they radicalize some people towards violence.