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Mourners attend a candlelight vigil at the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard for the victims of Sunday night's mass shooting, October 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A city that has long served as a beacon for celebration, luring honeymooners and partygoers from around the world, is coming to grips with its new reality as the site of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. It is an all-too familiar American tragedy, one that threatens to add fire to an already polarized political environment.

Investigators are still searching for answers for why Stephen Craig Paddock, a 64-year-old retiree from nearby Mesquite, Nev., opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort, raining bullets down on onto thousands of concertgoers on the Las Vegas Strip, killing at least 59 – including three Canadians – and injuring at least 527 before killing himself.

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But the brazen shooting by a lone gunman who was able to bring a stockpile of more than 20 firearms, including automatic weapons, into a popular hotel in a busy tourist destination has reignited a fierce political debate over gun control, particularly in Nevada, which has long had among the most relaxed gun laws in the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would visit Las Vegas on Wednesday. He called the shooting an "act of pure evil" and offered condolences to the families. "We are praying for you. We are here for you," he said.

Mr. Trump made no mention of gun control, but several Democratic Party leaders, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, called for the U.S. to embrace stricter gun controls.

Congressman Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts who served in the Iraq war, refused to participate in a moment of silence for the victims, calling it "an excuse for inaction."

The mayhem broke out shortly after 10 p.m. on Sunday, as rapid-fire shots rang out at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a country-music concert packed with more than 22,000 people.

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Investigators said Mr. Paddock used a hammer-like object to smash through the windows of his hotel room before opening fire on the crowd below. A retired accountant who had no criminal record or known political or religious affiliations, he had brought with him a cache of at least 16 weapons and police found another 18 in his home in a retirement community 130 kilometres northeast of Las Vegas.

"It sounded like machine guns to me," said Dori McKendry, who was waiting outside the venue to ferry concertgoers to their hotels for ride-share company Lyft, when she heard the volleys of gunfire. "It sounded like a war. I thought: Oh my God, Las Vegas is under attack. That's how it felt to me."

She saw people running, some covered in blood, some fleeing into oncoming traffic in a panic. Others lay motionless on the ground. "It was like flipping a light switch," she said. "People were just running and screaming and bloody everywhere."

Police officers showed up a minute later, surrounding Ms. McKendry's car and telling her to head to a nearby hotel for safety. Hours later, Ms. McKendry hadn't gone home to rest and instead headed down to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters to offer free rides to concertgoers who were trying to return to their hotels.

Outside the police headquarters, Tabitha Clement burst into tears. She had been frantically searching for news of her cousin Angie McPhee, who had travelled from Oregon as a birthday present for her husband, Scott, and had scored a front-row spot at the concert.

They were tears of joy – Ms. Clement had just learned that her family members had made it out unharmed. "It's happy, I just haven't processed it all," she said. "My journey is over, but many of the others won't be."

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The Las Vegas Convention Centre was turned into a makeshift crisis and information centre for family members and friends of those attending the concert, many of whom were still frantically searching for news of their loved ones hours after the shooting. One woman, who declined to give her name, said she had just learned that her daughter had died. "She was lovely and she didn't deserve this at all," she said.

Even as Las Vegas was still reeling from the tragedy, the city was already coming together in an outpouring of support. Lines stretched around the block at several blood-donor clinics set up around the city. Volunteers showed up in droves to offer food and water, free rides and pets trained to comfort trauma survivors.

A lifelong Las Vegas resident, Dana Ledford had waited four hours to give blood at a clinic outside of University Medical Center, where more than 100 patients were treated for injuries sustained in the shooting.

The tragedy cut close to home. Her daughter had tried to get tickets for the concert for her 29th birthday, but by the time she called, the show was already sold out. "You know, they say Vegas is a target, but it doesn't actually hit home until it's in your hometown," she said. "It's sad that this has to happen. It's sad that it happened at all."

Many residents were still too shaken to take stock of what the shooting would mean for a city that prides itself on a freewheeling, rule-breaking culture.

Ms. McKendry, a long-time Las Vegas resident, had preferred to avoid boisterous crowds, or driving at night. Sunday was her first time venturing down to pick up riders – and her last. "It's going to go one of two ways," she said. "Some people are going to say: Well, this can happen to you anywhere. Then there are those, who were running for their lives, they'll probably never come to Vegas again."

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Ms. Ledford said she hoped her children would never attend another concert. But was hopeful the city could bounce back. "People are still going to come," she said. "We just have to be ready."

With a report from Reuters

Video from Instagram shows people protecting each other and running from automatic gunfire in Las Vegas. At least 50 people were killed, and 400 hurt by the gunfire from a 32nd-floor hotel room Sunday night.
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