All over the media today it’s being reported that last night’s horrific shooting in Las Vegas is the deadliest in modern American history. Is this true? It depends on your criteria. If we’re speaking specifically of a lone actor using guns to attack civilians, it does indeed appear to be so. If we’re speaking more broadly of groups of people using guns to attack other Americans, it definitely is not.
There have been several incidents of non-military civilian attacks on fellow American citizens that have produced higher death tolls. I’m not sure how many. Among them are:
The attacks in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919.
The Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction.
The invasion of Greenwood in 1921.
In all of these cases, white citizens used mass firepower to attack black citizens and murder dozens or hundreds.
Why does this matter? The place of yesterday’s awful violence in the sweep of American history is not merely a matter of historical trivia. There are substantive questions involved in how we label it. While it seems to be the deadliest single-shooter event, it is important that we speak and think about it in ways that do not erase our longer inheritance of mass violence.
This is so not only because it is important to remember what we have overcome, but so that we might think historically and morally about the violence of our own time. The massacres in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—together with the broader ritualized murder and terrorist violence of which they were a part—often seemed to contemporaries to be forces of nature. Defenders of white murderers could imagine them as mere cogs in the inevitable and eternal struggle between the races. Instead of personal and social responsibility, there was only natural enmity between black and white. Massacres might be unfortunate, but weren’t they bound to happen?
Even those who wanted to eradicate the scourge of white supremacist violence found it difficult to imagine how it could come to an end. I’m reminded of the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells’ agonized cry: “Oh God, when will these massacres stop?”
But they did stop. The kind of mass violence that was a routine feature of American life from the 1870s to the 1920s doesn’t really happen anymore. The bloodletting was not, after all, inexorable. It wasn’t a force of nature. It reflected power relations. And its solutions were political. Black people moved to the North and gained some political leverage. They organized across the country and raised the economic costs of white supremacy. They formed coalitions and eventually broke the back of the white supremacist caucus in Congress. The violence receded.
In our time, mass shootings by lone actors are not forces of nature. They reflect contemporary power relations—most obviously the obscene influence of the gun lobby in Republican politics. The solutions are not beyond us. They only require political courage.