Around 10 PM on October 1, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock unleashed a barrage of bullets from the 32nd floor of his Mandalay Bay Hotel suite, raining terror on an unsuspecting crowd of roughly 22,000 festival attendees. Though the horrific assault lasted less than ten minutes, it was the single deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, killing 58 people and injuring well over 500. Authorities have since confirmed that Paddock acted alone, and though police have delved into the career gambler’s life history, no clear motive for the act has emerged.
In the wake of the tragedy, members of the hip-hop community expressed shock, sadness and disbelief. Vic Mensa and Russell Simmons even explicitly called for gun reform, challenging politicians to see the value in more stringent laws around the ability of individuals to purchase firearms. Sadly, Paddock’s senseless act of violence is part of what appears to be a phenomenon that is only becoming more lethal.
According to Politico Magazine, there have been 140 mass public shootings in the U.S. since 1976. While the number of mass shootings per year increased slightly in the mid-2000s, the actual death toll from such incidents has increased exponentially in the last five years. Prior to 2012, out of 100 million Americans, the average number of victims wounded or killed in mass shootings did not exceed 20. Post 2012, the number has consistently exceeded 20 - with the exception of 2014.
Such statistics are a fairly definitive indication that our country has a problem with guns, or at the very least monitoring who has access to them. When averaged against global mass shooting statistics, the United States far exceeds the country with the second highest shooting rate, the Philippines, which saw 18 massing shoots between 1969 and 2012 to the United States’s 90. According to CNN, though the US holds only 5% of the world’s population, 31% of all mass public shootings occur on American soil. For a genre like hip-hop, which has historically been villainized by white America as promoting violence and celebrating crime, for some, it invites the question of whether rappers should re-evaluate their relationships with guns.
Perhaps they should, but certainly not for any reason pertaining to Paddock’s actions. In fact, to even attempt to conflate rap music and gun violence with a horrific tragedy engineered by a lone domestic terrorist does little more than deflect crucial responsibility from Paddock. This kind of conflation is additionally dangerous because, to put it frankly, it is based in prejudicial thinking. When instances of gun violence involving minorities occur, there is often an attitude that it “makes sense” because of “rap music,” and for some, there is also the flat-out racist belief that PoC are more likely to be violent criminals and/or kill each other. Hence the age-old (frequently disproven) myth of black-on-black violence being more dangerous to black people than the kind of insidiously racist thinking that would even cause someone to attempt shift the blame from a mass shooter to an entire genre of music.
First let’s consider the average profile of a mass shooter: For clarity, we are defining a mass shooting in the same terms as the Gun Violence Archive, which describes it as an incident in which four or more are wounded or killed by gunfire. Mass shooters are overwhelmingly male - a 2014 report from Political Research Associates put the number at 94%. In 2015, another study put the average age of a mass shooter at 34, further stating that 40% of mass shooters were between 30 and 40 years old. According to statistics from Politifact (which analyzed numbers from Mother Jones and leading gun violence scholar, Grant Duwe), roughly 54% to 63% of mass shootings were committed by white males specifically. The range in numbers considers two different timelines - the 54% accounts for mass shootings between August 1982 and 2017, while the 63% accounts for shootings dating back to the 1900s.
Furthermore, many mass shooters exhibited similar risk factors including instances of domestic violence against a partner or loved one, a historical lack of compassion, narcissism, outbursts of rage, and for some, sexual violence. Early reports and insights from family members indicate that Paddock did not display many if at all any of these characteristics (or if so, not publicly). Although additional articles (with unverified sources) have claimed that he may have indulged in violent sexual fantasies with prostitutes, and at times openly berated his girlfriend. While deeply disturbing if true, in the context of this article it does little more than indicate he may have partially fit a mass shooter profile.
The important part about these numbers is that they show absolutely no empirical evidence that there is any crossover between mass shootings and rap music. So, to even attempt to frame a narrative in which the hip-hop community or rappers have any responsibility other than to do exactly what they’ve already done (offer condolences to the victims and those traumatized), is, well, ridiculous.
And while musicians could certainly be more conscious of the messages they impart, it’s still distasteful to take a tragedy and turn it into dog-whistle politics. Especially when there are plenty of artists such as Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper and Questlove (to name only a few), who are already using their enormous platforms to advocate for anti-violence and gun reform. In fact, if any reevaluation should occur, it should be here.
Artists should be asking themselves how they can use their vast global influence to help move forward the kind of policy that makes it more difficult for public acts of gun violence to even occur. They should be asking themselves this not because they are in any way implicated in the tragedy of Vegas, but because the culture of hip-hop is the one of the largest marketing schemes in America. So suffice to say, if they use their voices, people will listen.