A mass killer inevitably desires to make his mark (and it is almost always a he) by committing a uniquely heinous crime. Yet gun massacres now happen frequently enough in the U.S. that they threaten to acquire the very adjective a killer is trying to rise above: ordinary.
Last weekend's mass murders in Santa Barbara, California, by a mentally disturbed 22-year-old college student, began with his pre-rampage posturing in a YouTube video, promising "retribution" to women for his social isolation. He followed through on his threat, leaving seven young people dead and 13 wounded.
Popular culture may well inspire many mass murderers -- the shooter who chose a showing of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises," the high-school killers who wore mafia-style trench coats -- yet it also threatens to overwhelm them. Not just because violent shootings (sometimes accompanied, as in this case, with stabbings) are becoming commonplace. But also because the response to them is now much faster and more condemnatory, as evidenced by the outpouring of feminist outrage on social media after this latest episode.
True, too much of what's on TV and in video games exhibits a lazy reliance on violence and misogyny. Yet this complacency pales in comparison to Washington's.
When a mentally ill young man got hold of his mother's legal arsenal and used it to kill children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, it appeared a national threshold had been crossed. The grief seemed unbearable without a robust public policy response. Instead, a different threshold was crossed months later, when Congress responded to the terror of Newtown with ... nothing. Speeches were given, sound bites delivered, votes taken, yet no law was passed.
This failure is remembered now only intermittently. A televised interview of Richard Martinez, an anguished father who lost his only child in the California slaying, is instructive. Not for the familiar display of grief from a devastated parent. Not even for the father's righteous condemnation of the cowards of Capitol Hill. What's most striking is Martinez's careful placement, through screams and tears, of his son's killing in a national political context: At least his son wasn't killed in first grade, Martinez said, like those who were gunned down in Newtown.
Where else was Martinez to go with his grief? What solace does the nation offer him? What remedy could he possibly hope for from the entrenched cynicism and indifference that governs the politics of guns?
It has become acceptable to say that nothing can be done. That American culture is uniquely violent, the gun lobby uniquely powerful and, what with all those millions of guns around, such killings are all but inevitable.
Yet there are many things that can be done -- all within the scope of the Second Amendment. Consider just one proposal from the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy: the creation of a gun-violence restraining order that would allow family members or authorities to petition a court to remove firearms from an individual deemed a credible risk and to prevent temporarily that individual from purchasing firearms.
The roots of gun violence are complicated. But the violence itself isn't wholly beyond the reach of law. In fact, there are government policies and strategies -- including those derived from trial and error -- that can reduce the harm caused by guns. Because while gun violence is unquestionably part of American culture, so are pragmatism and perseverance.
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