In 1919, America had a problem with dynamite. Specifically, dynamite in bombs.
In April of that year, radical anarchists mailed at least 36 dynamite-filled bombs to prominent politicians, government officials and others in the United States. In June, another nine were sent. Several people were killed and more were injured.
The response from the U.S. Congress? It passed the National Firearms Act, which, among other things, made it much more difficult for members of the public to buy dynamite.
“Our government took action on dynamite sales because that was what anarchists were using to try to kill public officials,” said Randolph Roth, professor of history at The Ohio State University.
“That wasn’t the only time. Whenever new technology has been used to kill people, the government has stepped in to regulate it.”
Roth is author of the 2009 book American Homicide, a 655-page history of how and why people have killed others in the Americas.
He also wrote a chapter for the new book A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment.
In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton this week, Roth said his research suggests that the government needs to regulate the most deadly guns and make it harder for the public to buy them – just as it did with dynamite.
“We’ve faced the problem of modern technologies making killing easy before. It’s been dynamite, it’s been machine guns, it’s been trucks with fertilizer, it’s been planes,” Roth said.
“These were all modern technologies that allowed a single individual to commit mass murder. And each time we stepped up and did something about it.”
Roth said he is not talking about banning guns. In fact, his research suggests that levels of gun ownership have not been related to homicide rates in the United States through our history.
But what is different now is the lethal power of guns and the ease with which large-capacity semiautomatic rifles can be modified to fire extremely quickly.
“You can say that guns are and aren’t the problem. We have had mass shootings as long as we have had guns. What is different now is that a single individual can have enough lethal power to kill scores of people. That just wasn’t the case before,” he said.
Roth is co-director and one of the founders of the Historical Violence Database, based at Ohio State’s Criminal Justice Research Center. The database includes information on tens of thousands of homicides in different areas of the United States and western Europe from medieval times to the present.
The database also traces hundreds of examples of mass shootings in the United States through history. For example, in 1888, three people were killed at a tent revival next to a church in Jasper County, Georgia. A pistol was the weapon there. But what if the shooter had had more modern weapons at this crowded church event? Roth asked. How many more people could have been killed?
“It’s not mass murders that are new. It’s the technology that allows a single disturbed or angry individual to kill scores of people in just seconds,” he said.
“Mass murder used to be a group activity, because a single individual simply couldn’t kill many people with existing technologies.”
In the early history of the United States, Roth said, groups of people would band together to kill, often targeting African Americans or people of a specific religion, ethnic group or political movement.
Now groups aren’t necessary to commit mass murder.
Roth pointed out that the Dayton gunman killed nine people and injured 27 in less than 30 seconds because he had a .223-caliber high-capacity rifle with 100-round drum magazines. He fired 41 shots in that time.
“The type of gun matters. The issue is not guns in a generic sense.”
Roth said there are other steps that would limit the toll of violence, including taking online and other threats of violence seriously; working to identify and stop hate groups, particularly those associated with white supremacy; and helping those with mental illness.
Very few mass shooters are actually mentally ill, Roth said. But those few who do act violently “tend to be very suggestible and act on the hatreds they see in the rest of society.
“That’s why it is so important to stop the spread of hatred, particularly racial hatred.”
Roth said he hopes that Americans begin to see the necessity of regulating the most dangerous guns, even if they don’t want all guns banned.
“The Founding Fathers, who guaranteed the right to bear arms in an era of muzzleloading technology, could not foresee the dangers of semi-automatic firearms, machine guns, large capacity magazines and bump stocks,” he said.
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