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Car-to-car shooting latest violent incident to brand Vegas as dangerous even as crime drops

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Variously known as an adult playground and Disneyland for grown-ups, Las Vegas brands itself as a place where tourists can enjoy a sense of edginess with no real danger.

But a series of high-profile episodes of random violence amid the throngs of tourists is threatening Sin City's reputation as a padded room of a town where people can cut loose with no fear of consequences.

A car-to-car shooting and fiery crash that killed two bystanders and an aspiring rapper Thursday followed a bizarre elevator stabbing and a movie theatre parking lot shooting.

Though crime has been falling on the glitzy stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that houses most of the city's major casinos, tourism officials worry that vacationers and convention planners could begin to steer clear of the town because of a perception of mayhem.

"We are concerned because it can create misperceptions about the safety of the city, the safety of the Strip," said Gary Thompson, spokesman for Caesars Entertainment, which owns 10 resorts in the tourist zone, including Caesars Palace and Paris Las Vegas.

Casinos are particularly worried about convention business, which helps fill rooms and gambling tables between weekends. Corporate planners can swing the market with a few decisions, said Gordon Absher, spokesman for MGM Resorts International.

"And that decision will bring thousands of people," he said. MGM operates several major casino-hotels, including CityCenter, where Thursday's convulsion of violence originated.

Violent crime, which includes murder, rape, robbery and assault, in the city's main tourist hub fell 13 per cent in 2012, from 256 to 223 incidents, and is down 11 per cent for the first part of 2013, with 50 incidents reported. The number of rapes has fallen by more than a third.

There have been two homicides just off the Strip this year, in addition to the three deaths Thursday, compared to none in the area during the first month and a half of 2012.

Had they taken place elsewhere, the incidents that made headlines in recent weeks would never have become national stories, Thompson said. But when the crime happens in a city that welcomes 40 million visitors a year, people tend to care even if they haven't seen the neon lights in years.

"It's like, 'I was there! I stayed in there in Las Vegas! I walked that part of the Strip!'" he said.

The spate of violence started just before the new year, when a man shot and killed his ex-girlfriend, an Excalibur hotel-casino concierge clerk, before fatally shooting himself.

The following week, a blackjack dealer was wrestled to the ground at the Bellagio with razor blades in both hands. She is charged with killing a 10 year-old girl and then slashing her co-worker's face.

On New Year's Eve, a man allegedly fired a gunshot into the floor of the crowded Circus Circus casino during an argument. A Saudi air force sergeant is accused of raping a 13-year-old boy in the rooms above the same night.

A nighttime shooting outside a Strip movie theatre left two people critically wounded earlier this month. Last week, two random men allegedly assaulted a visitor in the elevator at the Mandalay Bay property, tackling him and stabbing him in such a frenzy that they also stabbed each other.

During the same period, Las Vegas courts sentenced a Florida teacher for killing a stranger with a single punch after trading words in a casino bathroom, and heard the case of two law students charged with beheading an exotic bird at the Flamingo casino-hotel.

The shoot-'em-up car chase that closed the Strip for 12 hours Thursday was the most public and deadly incident yet.

A person in a luxury SUV opened fire on an aspiring rapper in a Maserati near one of the busiest intersections on the iconic corridor. As the bullets flew, the Maserati ran a red light and crashed into a taxi, which burst into flames. The taxi driver, a passenger and the rapper were killed, and six people were injured.

Casino executives say they do all they can to keep visitors safe, with armies of guards, networks of high-definition surveillance cameras and undercover security workers scattered throughout nearly every major attraction.

"Unless you are a complete idiot, you're not going to want to commit many crimes in or around a casino because you're going to get caught," Thompson said.

But catching a criminal isn't the same as stopping the crime.

Commissioners in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, are weighing steps to increase safety, including installing additional cameras in public spaces and broadening the sidewalks. In October, they banned potentially dangerous objects including fireworks, knives and toy guns from the Strip.

But real guns remain permissible. Nevada's relaxed gun laws, including the ability to carry them openly, have made Las Vegas an attractive spot for shooting ranges and gun shows.

Some observers think police should step up their presence on the Strip, just as they did after three slayings in 2011.

"Clearly they should be looking into this because they have had a string of incidents now, and while they've all been random incidents, they all did happen," said David Schwartz, the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

On Thursday, police spokesman Jose Hernandez said the department had no plans to send additional officers to the Strip, noting that crime remains relatively low for a town that accommodates so many visitors each day.

But with violent crime, as with so much else in Vegas, perception may outweigh reality. As a place built on the promise of letting loose, the city must work extra hard to banish all fear of danger, said Tony Henthorne, a marketing professor at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration in Las Vegas.

"It's important for any destination that relies on tourism for a major percentage of its income to appear safe," he said, "and also actually to be safe."

___

Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier

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