It was everywhere: “The worst mass shooting in U.S. history”
On Twitter. In private conversations. Even in news headlines.
Was it accurate?
It is true a gunman's killing of 58 people and injuring more than 500 in a mass shooting Sunday in Las Vegas was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, with the total carnage worse than last year, when a gunman killed 49 people in Orlando.
The United States has a long history of gunmen shooting down dozens — sometimes hundreds — of people at one time. Here are a few other examples of those incidents:
- The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot: As many as 300 people were killed, 35 city blocks were burned and more than 800 people were hospitalized over Memorial Day weekend in 1921 when a white mob attacked black residents of the city's Greenwood District. The neighborhood was one of the wealthiest black communities in the country at the time and had earned the nickname “Black Wall Street.” In addition to guns, planes reportedly dropped burning balls of turpentine on the rooftops of black residents. (Source: Tulsa Historical Society and Museum)
- The Elaine Massacre: After black sharecroppers met in Elaine, Ark., in 1919 with union leaders to discuss more equitable treatment by white plantation owners, the sheriff of Phillips County led a group of white men to intercept a rumored “insurrection” among the black men. The mob of whites began killing black people on sight, with the number of deaths of blacks reaching into the hundreds. (Source: Equal Justice Initiative)
- The Sacramento River Massacre: Explorer John C. Frémont, motivated by the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” disobeyed orders from the U.S. government to set out with an expedition for the Rocky Mountains, and went to California instead. Upon arrival in 1846, he heard a rumor that a group of Native Americans was preparing to attack the men. Fremont led his men, carrying pistols and rifles, up the Sacramento River to find the members of the Wintu tribe. Upon discovering the group, Fremont's men fired on the men, women and children, killing at least 120 of them. (Source: An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846—1873)
The Fix's Callum Borchers wrote about why it's hard for media organizations to consistently define what qualifies as a mass shooting even as they report on them.
'Mass shooting' is a term without a universally-accepted definition, which complicates news coverage of events such as Sunday's massacre in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock's rampage clearly meets any mass-shooting standard (58 people dead and more than 500 others injured), but the question is how it fits into a broader trend.
There's also some debate over whether the different nature of the shootings in previous eras of history are in the same vein as today's mass shootings.
Individuals leading packs to kill groups of people with guns aren't viewed as “mass shootings” because the modern definition of mass shootings has come to be viewed as the act of a lone gunman shooting sometimes randomly into a public space. Some have argued this narrow definition of one person using guns to kill groups of people erases the thousands of people who have been killed by guns in a single incident.
One reason it's problematic — as well as insensitive — not to reference them is because the modern shootings invoke cries of “This is not who we are.” Those claims fail to acknowledge mass shootings have been a part of this country for quite some time.
“It’s part of the American experience: We deal with mosquitoes in August, airport delays around Thanksgiving, expensive health care and the potential of being shot, at any time, by a semiautomatic weapon as we try to go about the most boring, precious, asinine aspects of our daily lives,” wrote The Post's Monica Hesse.
While mass shootings in the style of what we saw Sunday seem to be part of the American experience, much of the history of killing large groups of people with guns is connected to another experience common in, but not unique to, America: white supremacy.
Significant time will be spent trying to uncover the motives of Stephen Paddock, a man whose actions seemed to surprise his own brother. The motives of many of the massacres throughout American history are not in question.