Robinson: Will we do nothing to prevent next mass shooting?

By Eugene Robinson, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 

Will we even pretend to do anything to prevent the next mass shooting by a crazed loner? I doubt it. We'll just add Aurora to the growing list — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson — and wait for the inevitable.

When that next atrocity comes, we'll tell each other we're shocked and stunned, knowing full well we should be neither. We'll probe the assailant's life in search of a motive, knowing full well we won't find one that makes any sense. We'll comfort survivors and victims' families, and assure them that their suffering will not be in vain. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, another disturbed young person will purchase an assault rifle and make unspeakable plans.

I can only conclude that we, as a society, have decided this is acceptable, that the occasional murderous rampage is the price we pay for … for what? For freedom? For the Second Amendment? For campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association?

Forgive me if I sound cynical. I'm afraid I am. Five years ago, I arrived on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., just hours after student Seung Hui Cho's murderous rampage left 33 dead, including himself. I will never forget what it felt like — the stunned disbelief, the white-hot anger, the unbearable sadness of so many young lives being extinguished for no purpose at all. I interviewed witnesses and survivors, took notes, wrote columns. But I was hardly an objective observer, because I'm a father who has sent two sons off to college. And to the movies.

At Sunday night's prayer vigil in Aurora, speakers took pains not to mention the name of the alleged assailant who is said to have murdered 12 people at the premiere of the new Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises." President Barack Obama, too, deliberately failed to mention the accused man's name in his remarks. It was appropriate to keep the focus on the victims rather than the alleged monster.

But James Eagan Holmes does have a name — and an all-too-familiar story. An intense young man becomes unmoored, somehow divorced from reality. Those who notice the change have no authority to do anything. He assembles a high-powered arsenal obviously meant not for sport. The fruitless debate begins: Do we focus on the man or the gun?

Clearly, there are two issues involved in these mass killings. The more difficult one has to do with mental health. We know that young adulthood is a volatile time for young men in general. We know that symptoms of a number of serious mental disorders typically appear between the teens and the mid-30s. We know that the mobility that characterizes modern life can foster a sense of rootlessness, perhaps a sense of alienation.

We also know that parents and other loved ones are often powerless to intervene. There is no simple way to identify the handful of individuals who are quietly spinning out of control, unseen behind closed doors. We should make society more caring; we should be more connected with one another. But this does not constitute a legislative agenda.

Gun control issue

The simple issue is access to weapons and explosives. Among the three guns that Holmes allegedly brought into the cinema was a Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle with an oversized 100-round magazine. This weapon jammed, according to police, leaving Holmes with a shotgun and a pistol. Had the assault rifle worked properly, the toll surely would have been much higher.

An unstable person can walk into a gun shop and buy a weapon designed for deadly combat, no meaningful questions asked. This is crazy. Minimal gun control — such as prohibiting assault weapons — wouldn't eliminate these massacres, but it would prevent some and mitigate others. Lives would be saved. Congress should pass an assault weapons ban, and the president should sign it.

Right. Dream on. Instead, we'll argue endlessly about whether we should focus on the man or the gun, and the effect will be to focus on neither. The next mass assailant is out there, so is his instrument of murder, and we will do nothing to keep them apart.