Clayton on Mass Murders

Clayton is doing an extensive study of mass murder in the United States, going back to 1657.

You probably can’t name the mass murders that killed 87 people in 1990 ;or 97 people in 1986; or the 1973 New Orleans gay bar with 33 dead.  All were arson, and are nearly unknown because there were no guns.  The 1990 murders were with $1 of gasoline bought a nearby gas station; the 1986 murders with a can of camp stove fuel; the 1973 murders were with a can of cigarette lighter fluid bought down the street.


14 thoughts on “Clayton on Mass Murders”

  1. Mass killings have been around a long time.

    On March 22, 1622, the Colony of Virginia was almost destroyed by a treacherous attack orchestrated by the Powhatan Chief Opechancanough that took the lives of 347 men, women and children of the Colony. History of the Virginia Company of London, supra at 339-46. The Powhatan tribe had observed the habits of the English and noticed that they left their arms in their houses when they worked in the fields, or became so lax that when they traveled they were either unarmed or under strength. After a proclamation was issued to preserve the supply of gunpowder by restricting the discharge of firearms, the local native tribes believed this was a sign that the “English pieces had gone sick” and took advantage of this

    ‘The warriors were to leave off their usual war paint, to lull their victims and proceed to the nearest plantations under the guise of friendship…then as work was beginning…do as much killing as possible…Warriors killed anyone easily dispatched, wounded as many as others as possible, but wasted little time in attacking those who put up a serious fight.’
    -Rountree, Pocahantas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown

    1. “Mass killings have been around a long time.”

      That massacre had been preceded by another mass killing on August 9, 1610, when the English had killed 65 – 75 Powhatans, including women and children. The Wikipedia article on the so-called “Powhatan Wars”, including your cited “Indian Massacre of 1622” gives a good overview.

      The point though is, whichever side did the massacring, or drew first blood, these were effectively “wars” and the massacres occurred in the context of paramilitary operations. Each deserves inspection in terms of the “morality” of what was done, but I’m not sure they should be classified with mass killings perpetrated by one or a small number of individuals, of the sort Clayton is addressing.

  2. Alas, the anti gunners will focus on “most are committed with guns” and justify their efforts to focus there.

    1. Mass killings may be mostly committed with guns in the US, but there are substantial cultural/traditional factors involved in mass killings in the rest of the world…some cultures traditionally use arson as a way to settle grudges, some traditionally use explosives, some use poison. There are countries with very strict gun laws that have very low gun murder rates, but arson murder rates that exceed the US’s gun-related murder rates. I once made a bad joke to a Prog, in which I opined that Serbia needed to “close the bomb-show loophole” to curb murders…

  3. A few days ago I reminisced how in the early 1970s (I was already a recent veteran, i.e., a not-quite-young adult) there was a period when there were approximately 2,500 bombings in the United States in one 18-month period. However, there weren’t many casualties because people weren’t targeted. Roughly 25 years later, people were targeted, and something like 167 (?) people were killed in a single bombing in Oklahoma City.

    I’m not exactly sure what my point is, but here are two suggestions:

    The problem is, when people seek to kill a large number of people; less so than how they seek to do it, but,

    Certain modes of attack just go in and out of style, for some reason. Bombings today still occur, but they are not even a small fraction of the problem they were in the early 1970s. I wondered out loud the other day, whether a key factor had been that civilian access to explosives had become more restricted over the years (and I apologize for what that may seem to imply.) In this example I just don’t know; I never had occasion to work with explosives.

    1. I am guessing bombings were common because they were a fad. Just like the media has made crazy people shooting others a fad, by giving them instant fame.

      1. “I am guessing bombings were common because they were a fad.”

        Exactly my point!

        The question of who or what makes a fad a fad is always a good one. The interesting thing though, is that bombings in that period of history became so commonplace that the media stopped reporting them, unless loss of human life occurred. That is, they had to be spectacular in some way to get coverage. But that did not result in the evolution of ever more spectacular bombings. Bombings in fact pretty much petered out (ceased to be a fad) by ~1975. I may be somewhat wrong on the dates, but the end of the Vietnam War seemed to quash a lot of fads.

    2. Bombings are still very much in style in the Middle East. I have no qualms about it htting the US as long as the materials are still available in the global marketplace.

      1. “Bombings are still very much in style in the Middle East.”

        I think that is very much keyed to the availability of military ordnance (including unfired, unexploded artillery rounds) to craft IEDs, and the availability of high explosives by route of well-funded organizations with international connections to nation-states.

        Maybe I shouldn’t write this too loud, but it has interested me that I have not heard any accusations of high explosives being smuggled across our borders. If such claims emerge shortly, remember that you read it here first. ;-)

    3. I think one major factor that led to firearms being used in mass murder is what happened at Columbine. Most people don’t realize that shooting people was actually “Plan B”; the murderers resorted to shooting when their explosives went off.

      We know that many of these mass shooters use Columbine as their template.

      Had “Plan A” worked, not only would the death toll have been much higher in Columbine — I’m half afraid that using explosives would have become modus operandi for murderers following, as well.

      Of course, if things like arson never make a big splash in the news, it’s possible that the tool of choice will always be guns, because they generate the most notoriety….

      1. “I’m half afraid that using explosives would have become modus operandi. . .”

        An interesting thought, because remember that the first attack on the World Trade Center, with explosives, was also largely a failure.

  4. I agree with Clayton that we are in drastic need to reform our medical system. Andy B has expressed a justified concern that involuntary commitment can be used against sane people — and I don’t particularly like the idea of permanently banning someone from guns for life — but I also think there’s a long way to go before we get to that line.

    Indeed, I particularly think it would be reasonable to involuntarily commit people who are homeless (or who spend many nights on the street despite having an apartment), who have a drug problem, and who have committed assaults against people. Additionally, in this day of cell phones and body cams, it shouldn’t be hard to document psychotic episodes when someone has schizophrenia.

    I would also add that if someone has a steady job, and who doesn’t threaten people, and doesn’t put themselves in danger (my sister, when she had her first psychotic episode, refused to eat, although she was also voluntarily committed), probably doesn’t need to be committed.

    Oddly enough, though, I don’t know how effective we’ll be at preventing mass murder by using these guidelines. Unfortunately, when someone is so schizophrenic that they are homeless, they aren’t likely sane enough to carry off an event like this, and those who are borderline enough to be able to hold a job are also sane enough to plan and carry out a deadly attack.

    And there’s pretty much nothing we could do to prevent people like the Las Vegas shooter and Johnny Ringo’s wife (who thankfully didn’t carry out her plans, but almost convinced both patients and nurses to join in on her plan to serially kill child rapists when she voluntarily committed herself), whose first sign that something is wrong is when they carry out their plans…

    And even in those cases, trotting out “if only guns were banned” won’t work, because when someone who is rich enough to have a pilot’s license and even owns a couple of planes secretly decides to kill a lot of people, there isn’t much we could do to stop them.

  5. I suppose Clayton doesn’t want to weigh down his column with too much academic information of the sort one would include in an academic paper, but I just re-read it and began wondering about the methodology by which he determined what were killings traceable to mental illness?

    My first thought about that post-Civil War spike that lasted through the end of the century was that it was connected to the variety of massacres that occurred during Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, and the early labor movement. But Clayton guesses that what he has identified were “PTSD” related.

    Thinking out loud, the things I cited were “ideological” in nature, but also could have been driven by mental illness, including PTSD-based illnesses. That is not unlike our contemporary mass murderers, many of whom are mentally ill but also are clearly driven by an “ideology.” To confuse things even more, some of our contemporary murderers were “ideologues,” but it isn’t clear that their ideologies are what propelled them to murder.

    Which is my long-winded way of saying, how do we identify in history which murders were motivated almost solely (or even largely) by mental illness?

  6. I distinguish mass murder by proximate cause. About 1/4 are either clearly severe mental illness or likely so. That outta the rate that rose in the 1860s and 1870s although not too the 1980s to present rate.

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