Las Vegas police can’t figure it out. Their ten-month review of the life and habits of gunman Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people when he sprayed bullets on an outdoor concert last summer, does not suggest a motive, they say. Could it be that the motive lies in the industry that is the city’s reason for being? Paddock’s high-stakes gambling habit had cost him some $1.5 million over the two years before his rampage, according to the police report.
We can’t realistically expect police in Las Vegas, of all places, to blame gambling for Paddock’s depravity, but it’s hard to avoid seeing it as at least an underlying cause. But reaching such a conclusion would not only require Las Vegas law enforcement to bite the hand that feeds; it would also run counter to our national indifference to—indeed, enthusiasm for—gambling, which had long been seen as a serious vice. In mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan, for instance, the street children in the Newsboys Lodging House—the model for the Broadway hit “Newsies”—were told by founder Charles Loring Brace: “Some of you imagine that, if, in place of drudging away, day after day . . . you take your pennies down to those cellars on N____ Street, and suppose, by cards or by dice, that you can save labor and double or treble your money easily. You hope those gambling salons are the way to Fifth Avenue; in fact, they are the ferry to Blackwell’s Island (prison).”
Gambling and crime, Brace said, were linked. “As very few gamblers ever win much money; they are constantly trying to make up their losses by dishonest means,” he instructed. “They cheat even their comrades; they pilfer, they steal, they commit burglary, they rob on the highway.” The same view was espoused by early twentieth-century Progressive reformer Walter Rauschenbusch, father of the left-wing “social gospel,” who termed gambling the “vice of the savage.”
Once tolerated, at best, as a black-market service, “gaming” today is not only legal but also owned, operated, and heavily promoted by government. New York spends some $180 million annually to advertise its lottery, promising instant gratification and happiness without work. But as now-ignored moralists once understood, even the few winners in this racket are losers—and the actual losers can remain addicted and become embittered. A National Institute of Mental Health report found that, as state lotteries and casino gambling have become widespread, so has the incidence of “pathological” gambling, which has more than doubled between 1975 and 2013 and now afflicts 1.56 percent of the population.
Paddock, whose pathology extended all the way to mass murder, was certainly in that number. We can’t be certain that, absent his gambling debts, Paddock might not have had other reasons to lash out at Las Vegas. But why do we remain so certain—as we extend legalized gambling to the once-harmless diversion of professional sports—that betting is a harmless pastime? Gambling is a vice that should not be a bedrock of our entertainment and public revenues but should, rather, lead to discouragement and disapproval.
As Charles Loring Brace told his newsboys in 1859:
If you are selling papers, run fast and be quick, do honestly by everyone who deals with you, work early and late. . . . This is the way men acquire wealth, by constant saving and hard work . . . and whether you are rich or not, you have no reason to be ashamed of your business and no fear of the law.
Photo: Jon Sullivan/pdphoto.org