[Content warning: This article discusses gun violence and mentions issues of mental health.]
On Sunday, Oct. 1, a terrorist unleashed a firestorm of bullets of a magnitude never before seen by the United States. The shooter, who has been identified as Stephen Paddock, took the lives of 59 people and injured over 500 who were attending a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. This act of terror constitutes the deadliest mass shooting ever committed by an individual in the United States, surpassing even the death toll of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, which claimed the lives of over 49 people. It is extremely disturbing to note that mass shootings are becoming increasingly common in our society; four out of five of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred over the past 10 years.
The media portrayal of Paddock has quickly been buried and forgotten amidst more recent news, but is nonetheless problematic and highlights a larger issue in American society: the inability of the mainstream media to call out white male mass murderers as terrorists. Research shows that in the United States, middle-class Caucasian heterosexual males commit mass murder in numbers that are disproportionately high relative to their share of the population (Men and Masculinities, “Triple Entitlement and Homicidal Anger,” 03.24.2014). However, the popular media is unwilling to use the appropriate vocabulary when a white person is the one looking down the barrel of the gun. Nevada state law clearly defines an “act of terrorism” as any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence that is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population. Yet the incident was not publicly labeled as an act of terrorism, nor Paddock as a terrorist (Quartz, “‘Lone wolf’ vs ‘terrorist’: the vocabulary of mass shootings,” 10.02.2017).
This is in stark contrast to the treatment that shooters of an ethnic or religious minority receive. For example, in 2015 when the San Bernardino shooting occurred, there was no hesitation on the part of authorities nor the mainstream media to label the perpetrators as terrorists. The difference in treatment between Paddock and the couple behind the San Bernardino attack is that the latter happened to be Muslim. This shows the immense amount of privilege afforded to white male shooters in the public sphere.
When the shooter is white, there is by and large an attempt to humanize them. They are often described as “loners” who “kept to themselves.” Oftentimes interviews with the immediate family of the shooter produce dumbstruck responses when they find out that their loved one has committed an atrocious act of violence. The interviews conducted with Paddock’s family exemplify this phenomenon, as they paint a picture of Paddock as an average man: His brother, for example, was astounded to hear the news, saying, “He’s just a guy who played video poker and took cruises and ate burritos at Taco Bell” (The Washington Post, “Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock was high-stakes gambler who ‘kept to himself’ before massacre,” 10.02.2017). Actor Jesse Williams critiqued this phenomenon, tweeting, “When an unarmed Black person gets killed, the 1st thing we learn are her/his vices. White guy slaughters people… Gosh, what did he enjoy?” (Twitter, 10.02.2017).
In addition to portraying white perpetrators as otherwise typical people, the media looks to mental health status as an excusable explanation for their actions. For example, in 2015, after Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 children and six educators in the Sandy Hook massacre, he was described as an “isolated young man with deteriorating mental health” whose problems were “misunderstood and mistreated.” Attributing the actions he committed to his mental health takes the blame of his actions away from Lanza and renders him free of culpability (CNN, “Report finds missed chances to help Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, 11.23.2014).
This labeling only fuels the stigma against people who are actually living with a mental illness. Contrary to what is said in the media, the reality is that the majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, and only four percent of violent acts are committed by mentally ill people (American Journal of Public Health, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” 01.2015). Investigating shooters’ mental illnesses—whether or not they are found to exist—equates violence with being mentally ill, and this speculation harms those with mental illnesses.
No other country experiences mass shootings at such a frequency as the United States. The United States leads the world in number of mass shootings; its population makes up just five percent of the global population but is responsible for 31 percent of the world’s mass shooters since 1966 (Los Angeles Times, “Why the U.S. is No. 1—in mass shootings,” 08.24.2015). The prevalence of mass shootings has skewed our worldview so that these tragedies are normalized. It is no longer a matter of whether there will be another mass shooting, it has become a matter of when. Schools, hospitals and employers are actively taking measures to prepare their community members for this scenario, which speaks to the way in which our society has normalized gun violence. But as CNN columnist Sally Kohn tweeted, “What happened in Las Vegas is NOT NORMAL. In the US, we are 25 times more likely to die from gun violence compared to people from other industrialized countries. #GunControlNow” (Twitter, 10.02.2017).
This problem is complicated by the fact that mainstream discourse places emphasis on individual shooters’ lives, motivations and intentions, not on systemic issues. But this phenomenon goes beyond individual cases; we live in a country and system that has normalized mass shootings and terrorism. Change must happen on a systemic level, taking the focus off of individual shooters and putting it onto the pattern of white men shooting at crowds of people, which they manage to do because of lax gun regulations. Paddock carried out his attack with the aid of bump stocks, pieces of equipment that allow semi-automatic guns to fire at a rate comparable to automatic guns—or roughly nine rounds a second. They are legal and largely unregulated in America, and although Congress recently proposed legislation to ban the production and sale of this equipment, the National Rifle Association has pushed back hard (CNN, “NRA opposes bump fire stocks bills in Congress,” 10.13.2017). Authorities also reported that they recovered 23 firearms in Paddock’s Las Vegas hotel room and found 19 more in his home in Mesquite, NV (The Economist, “The Las Vegas shooting has reinvigorated calls for gun control,” 10.05.2017). The fact that Paddock was able to purchase so many weapons without raising suspicion is alarming, to say the least.
After every mass shooting, there are adamant calls for stronger background checks and other gun regulations, which are only met with heavy resistance from gun rights advocates. Ultimately, nothing productive is accomplished in Congress, and the problem is left unsolved until the next tragedy strikes and the cycle starts anew. This is inexcusable. Human lives are more valuable than gun ownership rights. The responsibility lies with lawmakers to end this vicious cycle so that no more lives are needlessly lost.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.