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'Words matter': The complicated language of mass shootings, killings, and massacres

After the Las Vegas massacre was deemed the deadliest mass shooting in modern history, criminologists and historians continue to debate how we catalog American tragedies, what we call them, and who decides.

The interior of ARC hospital, in Tulsa, Okla., Nov. 1, 1921. as patients recover from race riots of June 1.
The interior of ARC hospital, in Tulsa, Okla., Nov. 1, 1921. as patients recover from race riots of June 1.Read moreHandout

Ruth Cankudutawin Hopkins was still awake late on Oct. 1 when the social media reports about a shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas first appeared.

She knew it would be terrible. And sure enough, the next day came the headlines: "The deadliest mass shooting in American history."

"I was acutely aware that that was not true," said Hopkins, a tribal attorney, columnist, and member of the Dakota/Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota.

While tragic and horrific, the Las Vegas slaughter of 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest Music Fest was not the deadliest mass killing in the United States, Hopkins said. Take the Wounded Knee Massacre, where at least 150 and possibly 300 Native American men, women, and children were killed in South Dakota in December 1890.

By the second day after the shootings, news organizations adjusted after two journalists associations reminded the media: Among other incidents, "More than 100 black people were killed in the East St. Louis Massacre in 1917."

And so Las Vegas become the deadliest in "modern history."

"We wanted to raise the issue that our story is part of the American story," said Greg Morrison, treasurer of the National Association of Black Journalists, one of the organizations that issued the reminder. "When telling American stories of horrific events, include our stories and the stories of Hispanics and Native Americans. That's when you're telling the whole story."

For Hopkins, how to determine the "deadliest" attack is less about numbers and more about an inability to acknowledge American history's truth: "There's a sense of not wanting to look in the mirror and deal with the actual history of this country," she said. "This country was founded in violence."

Still, criminologists and historians continue to debate how we catalog American tragedies, what we call them, and who decides.

Mass murder, mass shooting: What’s the difference?

Grant Duwe, a criminologist and expert on mass murder who is also director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, helped explain the criminal definitions.

A mass murder, according to the FBI, is an incident in which four or more people are killed with any type of weapon within a 24-hour period. A mass shooting, then, is mass murder carried out with a firearm.

And a mass public shooting is an incident in which four or more victims are killed with a firearm within a 24-hour period at a public location "in the absence of other criminal activity," meaning robberies, drug deals, gang turf wars, military conflict or collective violence. That makes the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando mass murder, but not the Wounded Knee or St. Valentine's Day massacres, according to Duwe.

"So, even though the Orlando and Las Vegas attacks are not the worst mass murders or mass shootings in U.S. history — modern or otherwise — they are the worst mass public shootings," said Duwe, who wrote Mass Murder in the United States: A History.

Why does it matter?

Whether we call the attacks in Las Vegas or Orlando "mass murders" or "mass public shootings" is important because "words matter," said Duwe. "They shape perception, which can in turn shape policies we implement to control a problem."

Can we consider the Las Vegas killings terrorism?

Terrorism is the use or threat of violence to advance an agenda — political, religious or social.

There is overlap, however, between terrorism and mass murder. Some of the deadliest mass killings in U.S. history have been terrorist attacks. Still, "not all terrorism rises to the level of mass murder," Duwe said. "And the vast majority of mass murders have not been terrorist attacks."

Because terrorist attacks are intended to intimidate broader segments within society, Duwe categorizes post-Civil War massacres in the South as "racial terrorism" because they were often intended to send a message to African Americans.

"We see similar efforts to send a message, perhaps albeit to a lesser extent, in some of the 19th century massacres that occurred in connection with the labor movement, and hostilities between white settlers and American Indians," Duwe said.

Why, when Native Americans or African Americans are killed, don’t those deaths somehow make the larger list?

This is because the cavalry and settler attacks on Native Americans and the mob attacks on African Americans are often considered "quasi-military" actions or instances where police deputize individuals into state action, according to James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who has written about mass murder.

Isn’t that just semantics?

Fox says no. The American people know the federal government mistreated Native Americans, he said. "But when you start a discussion about a mass shooting, it's a different event. I don't think we erase that history; we put in on a different page of history."

Morrison, of the NABJ, doesn't believe there's any distinction: "Those people are equally dead, whether it's by a lone gunman shooting out of the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel or by a mob of folks going through and wiping out an entire community of people."

Said Paul C. Rosier, a history professor at Villanova University: "All nations like to read a positive history [of themselves]. History's job is to complicate the narrative."

Is there a danger when we try to rank killings?

American society tends to glorify violence — we love guns, war films, and movies depicting gore, said Rosier. So, "the more ubiquitous they [guns] are, the more their use becomes seen as ordinary or commonplace."

Plus, when we rank events, it can have disturbing results, said Fox.

From a 2012 article of his: "Notwithstanding the cruel absurdity of treating human suffering as any sort of achievement worthy of measuring in such terms, there is little positive that can be derived by keeping or highlighting such ignominious records. But there is one significant negative: Records are made to be broken."

What are some of our history’s worst mass murders?

Tulsa race riot, May 31-June 1, 1921, in Oklahoma . A white mob attacked a black neighborhood known as Greenwood, or "Black Wall Street," which was then believed to be the wealthiest black business district in the United States. Modern estimates place the death toll at 50 to 300 people, many of them shot.

Colfax, La. massacre, April 13, 1873. On Easter, about 150 black men were killed in the aftermath of tensions following the 1872 election for governor. Southern white Democrats, angry that a Republican had been elected, overpowered a group of Republican freed men and black militia men who were trying to defend the Grant Parish courthouse.

East St. Louis, Ill., race riots, July 1 to 3, 1917.  Tensions had been simmering in East St. Louis, where thousands of blacks had arrived from the South to work in war factories as early as February 1917, and on July 1, a white man in a Ford shot into black homes. Journalist Ida B. Wells reported in the Chicago Defender that 40 to 150 black people were killed; the NAACP estimated deaths at 100 to 200.

The Rosewood massacre, Jan. 1-7, 1923, in the primarily all-black town of Rosewood, Fla. Although the official death toll was initially put at six black people and two white people, later estimates said as many as 150 African Americans were killed. The town also was destroyed and abandoned.

Sand Creek Massacre, Nov. 29, 1864. Colorado volunteer soldiers attacked a campsite of Cheyenne and Arapaho, and 230 people were killed. Over half were women and children. There is a Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, established in 2007, in Eads, Colo.

Gnadenhutten massacre, also known as the Moravian massacre, March 8, 1782.  Colonial militia killed 96 Christian Lenape Indians during the American Revolutionary War at the Moravian missionary village in Ohio. The Christian Lenape had not been part of any military action.

Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Dec. 29, 1890. At least 150 Sioux warriors, women, and children were killed along Wounded Knee Creek at Pine Ridge Reservation, but some put that number as twice as high, along with 25 American soldiers. Nearly half of the Native Americans killed were women and children.