The New Yorker
Another Worst Mass Shooting in the United States
By Jelani Cobb October 2, 2017
People typically have to apply themselves to reach new benchmarks, and it is indisputable that we, as a society, have applied ourselves to reach this one.
Photograph by David Becker / Getty
At a certain moment in the darkness of Sunday night, Las Vegas, a city that serves as a monument to the American willingness to suspend disbelief, became the setting for a macabre performance that we have seen many times before, one we wish could be permanently cancelled, one which summons an entirely different sort of disbelief. The First reports in the early hours of Monday announced that an unnamed gunman, firing from a perch high up in the Mandalay Bay hotel, had killed at least twenty people, at a Jason Aldean concert at an outdoor venue on the Vegas strip, and injured as many as a hundred more. Aldean now joins Ariana Grande and the Eagles of Death Metal as an entertainer who has seen his attempts to inspire joy be corrupted into tableaux of incalculable grief. The vantage point of a shooter thirty-two stories in the air, firing an automatic weapon at a crowd on the ground, meant that the attack in Las Vegas would generate horrific numbers of injuries—the gunfire amplified by the likelihood of people being trampled as they fled. By dawn, the number had ticked upward to “at least fifty” fatalities.
The headlines soon began referring to the tragedy as the worst mass shooting in the last century of U.S. history, surpassing the previous incident to hold that title in less than two years: in June of 2016, the massacre in the Pulse night club, in Orlando, resulted in forty-nine deaths, excluding that of Omar Mateen, the gunman who was killed when police breached the building. There is a grim record-keeping involved here, one that itself highlights the ways in which the horror of mass shootings begins to blur, owing to their sheer frequency. By mathematic calculation, the deadliest shooting is “the worst.” But, by a different measure, five years ago, we didn’t think that any shooting could be worse than the one that killed twenty children, just six and seven years old, and seven adults, in Newtown, Connecticut. Two summers ago, we felt something similar when nine people in a Charleston church were murdered by a young man whom they had invited to join them in prayer. And how are we to categorize the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and seventeen others, given that it not only struck at innocents but also at a fundamental rite of democracy—of citizens engaging their elected representative?
The distance between forty-nine dead in Orlando and at least fifty-eight in Las Vegas is sixteen months. The deadliest shooting before Orlando, the massacre at Virginia Tech, which claimed the lives of thirty-two people, held that terrible distinction for nine years—not a small amount of time, but damning by another measure, in that our “worst” tragedy could not exist for a decade without being surpassed. People typically have to apply themselves to reach new benchmarks, and it is indisputable that we, as a society, have applied ourselves to reach this one. As with arenas of positive human achievement—the tallest building, the fastest plane, the longest period of time spent in space—these records are a reflection not simply of the determination of the individual but of the advent of new technologies designed to assist them. Stephen Paddock, the alleged Las Vegas gunman, was equipped with weaponry far advanced from the collection of firearms that Charles Whitman used to murder fourteen people, from the University of Texas clock tower, fifty-one years ago.
The growing number of mass shootings in the United States provide case studies not only for law-enforcement officials but also for those with ulterior motives. After Newtown, Wayne LaPierre, the C.E.O. of the National Rifle Association, said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But in Las Vegas the only thing that have could have stopped a sniper hidden behind a bank of windows on the thirty-second floor of a building, shooting at people twelve hundred feet away, would have been the unlikely presence of a similarly armed sniper located at a vantage point that gave him or her an open shot at the perpetrator. We have no idea what Paddock’s motives were, but it is not hard to imagine that he chose his location because it would be difficult for a hypothetical good guy with a gun to locate him, much less take counter-measures.
Donald Trump announced his condolences to the families of those who died, and are still dying, in Las Vegas. “May God bless the souls of lives that are lost,” Trump said. He also denounced the massacre as “an act of pure evil.” This is true. But it is an entirely predictable, politically abetted evil. Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, tweeted, “To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs . . . You can’t regulate evil . . .” But this is a purpose of law—to regulate evil. One measure of the development of a civil society is the obstacles that we place in the path of those who would commit acts of great harm to innocents. By Monday afternoon, it was reported that gun- and ammunition-manufacturers’ stocks were rising. We have done the opposite in the five years since the Newtown shooting ignited a renewed interest in gun reform. The attack in Las Vegas is the worst mass shooting right now, not because of the number of the dead but because it reveals, yet again, that our steadfast refusal to do anything different is enabling those who wish to give us more of the same.
Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”