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Is the Orlando shooting really ‘the worst mass shooting’ in US history?

Some say use of the term to describe the shooting in Orlando misses the historic violence committed by against minority groups.

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A makeshift memorial to victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in front of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando.

Stephen M. Dowell/AP

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When the death toll in the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub became known, media organizations were swift to paint the dimensions of its brutality as unprecedented.  With 50 people dead and 53 others wounded, it was consistently characterized as the “worst mass shooting in US history”

But some observers balked at the description, insisting that a longer view of gun violence would turn up bloodier episodes – and in doing so, trace a national problem back to the nation’s colonial roots. 

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One persistent point of reference has been the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, when members of a US Army cavalry unit opened fire on an encampment of Lakota Sioux.  An estimated 150 people were killed (although some estimates are as high as 300), and some 51 wounded. Twenty-five US soldiers were among the fatalities. 

In the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race riots, a mob was incited by rumors that a black man had assaulted a white woman. The crowd attacked black Tulsans and destroyed their businesses.  Nearly 80 years later, an Oklahoma truth commission concluded that “it would not be unreasonable to estimate 150 to 300 deaths” resulted from the riot. 

In one list of the deadliest mass shootings across the globe, The New York Times addressed the question obliquely.  In an editor’s note clarifying their use of the term, it wrote, “The list of deadliest mass shootings worldwide includes attacks by public mass shooters, not organizational acts of terrorism or genocide.” 

But criticism prompted review from some corners of the press, including The Los Angeles Times, The Independent in Britain, and Big Think. 

No consensus exists on what kind of violence is encompassed by the term “mass shooting.”  Most official definitions have focused on what constitutes a “mass murder,” which refers to the number of dead without specifying the way they were killed.  The FBI, for instance, used to define that term as “a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders” and usually in the same location.

Starting in 2013, federal statutes defined "mass killing" as three or more people killed, regardless of weapons. 

Either definition would seem to included incidents such as the Tulsa riots or the massacre at Wounded Knee. But in the case of the Tulsa riots, especially, it’s unclear how all the people were killed.

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In an NPR article considering the network’s own use of the term to describe the events in Orlando, a historian on mass murder and director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Grant Duwe, drew a distinction between mass murders before and after the 20th century.  Before 1900, he told the network, mass murders tended to be committed by the “haves” against the “have nots”, whereas post-1900, the trend was turned on its head. The term “mass shooting,” Mr. Duwe added, tends not to include those involving what NPR called “military or quasi-military actors”. 

But in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal a few days later, USC law professor Ariela Gross argued that it was a mistake to disassociate gun violence from state violence against minority groups. 

“It’s important to put the Pulse shooting in historical context not to minimize the terror wreaked by a disturbed and bigoted individual’s easy access to military-grade weapons,” Prof. Gross wrote, “but to recognize that gun culture in the U.S. has gone hand in hand with violent hatred for a long time.”