Here we are again: one man, a cache of assault weapons, innocent victims. This time it happened in Las Vegas, where a 64-year-old gambler broke through the windows of his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and, from that vantage point, fired into the crowd at an outdoor country-music concert, killing 58 people and injuring nearly 500 others. When I heard about the massacre on the radio, I knew, even in the midst of my horror, that the suspect was a white man, because the reporter referred to him as a “gunman,” not as a “terrorist.” The difference has far-reaching consequences for how the country responds to mass shootings, which have claimed hundreds of lives and are most often perpetrated by white men, many of whom espouse extremist right-wing ideologies.
Consider how our media talk about mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Stephen Paddock, the murderer in Las Vegas, was called a “lone wolf,” a “gunman,” and even a “sniper,” while Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, was almost immediately dubbed a “terrorist.” But did the men and women who frantically sought cover from the hail of bullets at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival feel less terror than those who were trapped in the Pulse nightclub? Do families who lost loved ones in Las Vegas grieve any less than those who did in Orlando?
Of course, it can be argued that terrorism is not just about inducing fear and inflicting violence, but doing these things in the service of a greater political cause. Mateen was said to have pledged allegiance to ISIS on a 911 call during the shooting, whereas Paddock’s motives remain, as of this writing, unknown. “Right now,” said Sheriff Joe Lombardo of Clark County, Nevada, “we believe it’s a sole actor, [a] lone-wolf-type actor.”
Notice that the emphasis on the solitary nature of the act encourages us to think of it as unavoidable: We are supposed to accept that mass shootings can happen because no one can predict when an armed man will “snap” and go on a shooting spree. Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News personality, made this argument in a blog post the day after the shooting. “This is the price of freedom,” he wrote. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.”
Yet when it comes to terrorism, we are repeatedly told that every effort will be made to keep us safe, whatever the cost to our rule of law or sense of morality. Days after the terrorist attack by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, California, for example, Donald Trump, then still a presidential candidate, called for “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Last summer, after Mateen opened fire in a gay nightclub, Trump gloated that he “appreciated the congrats for being right on Islamic terrorism.”
At the same time, Trump remains conspicuously silent when the attacker is a white man. When Jeremy Joseph Christian killed two people in Portland, Oregon, who had objected to his anti-Muslim rant on a Metropolitan Area Express light-rail car, Trump didn’t suggest banning white men from trains. Instead, he spent the weekend tweeting about the Russia investigation and leaks from the White House. Likewise, the neo-Nazis and white nationalists who marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer and killed a young counterprotester did not attract Trump’s ire. There were “some very fine people on both sides,” he said. And all Trump could manage about the massacre in Las Vegas, reportedly the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, was that Paddock was a “sick” and “demented” man.
It’s tempting to dismiss these reactions as distinctly Trumpian, but I fear that Trump is merely saying out loud what remains politely unspoken in the culture. The United States doesn’t talk about mass shootings in the same way that it talks about terrorist attacks. One type of violence is viewed as unavoidable, the other as preventable. One requires no change in our laws; the other does—up to and including no-fly lists, religious bans, and mass surveillance. One results in no discomfort for the white people who
happen to share the race or faith of the shooter; the other culminates in the treatment of brown and black people as criminals-in-waiting.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the language that the National Rifle Association uses in framing the debate about gun control. Guns cannot be legislated, we are told, because this would simply deprive “law-abiding citizens” of their constitutional rights while “criminals” continue to arm themselves illegally. This is a position that only makes sense if you believe that criminals are always born, never made. The NRA and its supporters treat the categories of “criminal” and “law-abiding” as inflexible and inherent. That is the language of race.
But how much would the national conversation about guns change if people of color suddenly decided to arm themselves en masse? There is no need to wonder, because it already happened once, in California. In the 1960s, members of the Black Panther Party legally purchased firearms and conducted armed patrols and “cop watching” in Oakland. The movement so alarmed legislators that they crafted the Mulford Act, which prohibited the public carrying of loaded weapons in California.
We all know the script: When a mass shooting happens, we feel horror at the number of casualties, engage in speculation about the suspect, hear our leaders offer their “thoughts and prayers,” watch the NRA’s Twitter feed go quiet for a few days. What we can hardly claim anymore is shock that the shooting happened. Not only did it happen, but it will happen again and again and again until we do something about it. And that can only begin with a frank reckoning of how white supremacy enables and maintains our current gun laws.