STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm Steve Inskeep in Las Vegas overlooking the Las Vegas Strip. We're looking down at the fountains of the Bellagio here, which have been stilled because of Sunday's mass shooting. That shooting raised a lot of big questions. And in this part of the program, we face one of them. What rules or laws covered the guns that a man used to kill 59 people? We begin at the crime scene. Last night, we stood alongside some yellow police tape on the Las Vegas Strip in sight of smashed windows on a high hotel floor.
This corner, over which the bullets flew on Sunday night, is pretty quiet right now, except for police officers. But the Las Vegas Strip is functioning. We're hearing the sound of overhead trains that carry people from one casino and hotel to another. And the hotels are all lit up. The Mandalay Bay right in front of us. And over here, the black pyramid that is the Luxor. It's a distinctive American landscape here in the middle of the desert. And difficult as it is to say, the shooting that took place here Sunday night is also part of the American landscape because it's far more common to hear of mass casualty events like this in the United States than in many other countries.
So that's the setting as we ask about the weapons.
INSKEEP: Police say they found 23 guns in the hotel room and another 19 or so at the gunman's home. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has been tracking the weapons in this story. He's on the line. Hi, Joseph.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Other than the number of guns, do you know the kind of any of these guns?
SHAPIRO: Well, California Congressman Adam Schiff, he's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, he told us he was briefed by FBI officials and that they told him that among the guns found in the hotel room, there were fully automatic weapons. And some weapons, experts said right away just from listening to the audio, that they could tell that the weapon was automatic. I think, Steve, if I remember correctly, you also observed that yesterday from hearing the tape.
INSKEEP: It sounded automatic, although, of course, people who are gun enthusiasts immediately pointed out there are ways to get a non-automatic gun to fire a burst. But still, those were very powerful bursts. It sounded like something...
SHAPIRO: Right. Another expert, by the way, that I talked to said, well, you can't really tell from the audio recording, that there are just a lot of factors that can affect the sound. It could be the echo. But we do have reports overnight that they did find fully automatic weapons or weapons that had been converted to be automatic.
INSKEEP: I guess we should just define terms here. Generally speaking, a semi-automatic weapon or some other kind of weapon fires one shot each time you pull the trigger, generally speaking. A fully automatic weapon can fire a long burst. Why would it be significant if the shooter was using a fully automatic weapon?
SHAPIRO: Right. So it's like what you said, those weapons are so deadly and they're very rare. So in other mass shootings at Newtown, San Bernardino, Aurora, killers used those semi-automatic weapons. They reload automatically, but they shoot just one round for every trigger pull. And those fully automatic weapons are very hard to come by, they're highly regulated. And as a result, they're rarely used in crime.
So this would add an even more gruesome detail to mass shootings.
INSKEEP: OK. You're using a very careful term there. You didn't say they're illegal because they're not illegal entirely. But they're tightly regulated. What does that mean and who regulates them?
SHAPIRO: Right. So this goes back to Al Capone, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 of gangsters with Thompson submachine guns or Tommy guns. The fear of those weapons led to an early gun control law, something called the National Firearms Act of 1934. So if you wanted one of those automatic weapons, you had to register with the federal government and you had to pay a tax, $200. And that was prohibitive in the middle of the Great Depression.
And today, automatic weapons are extremely difficult to get. And that's because a law in 1986 basically banned domestic gunmakers from making fully automatic weapons or machine guns. But if they were made before 1986, you can still get one legally. You have to pay the tax. It's still $200. You get a background check. You register your fingerprints with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But there aren't a lot of those legal ones around.
In 2006, there were fewer than 400,000 on the machine gun registry. So they're hard to find, and that means they cost a lot, about the price of a small car.
INSKEEP: The law of supply and demand applying there. However, there's another question. Can you buy a semi-automatic weapon and convert it into a fully automatic weapon?
SHAPIRO: You can. And the Associated Press reported overnight quoting officials familiar with the investigation that there were two semi-automatic rifles in the hotel room that had been converted with something called a bump stock. They're kits that you can buy online and generally for less than a few hundred dollars that convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones or something close to an automatic one.
SHAPIRO: It's not something that many gun owners want to do because it makes the weapon less accurate. But accuracy would not have been as important to Stephen Paddock because he was shooting into a crowd of thousands of people and his gunfire was sure to hit or wound or kill someone in the crowd.
INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Shapiro, thanks very much.
SHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.