Shouting fire in a crowded theater is a terrible thing to do. Opening fire is a horror of a whole order of magnitude. Most of America is struggling to make sense out of 24-year-old neuroscience student James Holmes’ rampage, which so far has resulted in the deaths of 12 people and injured 59 others, some of whom may not make it. We want to do something to keep these things from happening, but what?
President Obama and Mitt Romney extended condolences and modified their campaign schedules for the day. But neither wants to risk losing voter support, especially in swing states, by making gun control part of the election debate.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg chastised them for not using the occasion to call for stricter gun control. He has a point. Luke O’Dell of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, said that, if someone in the audience were carrying, the carnage wouldn’t have been so great. Now there’s a helpful solution, in the George Zimmerman style! But people are more responsive to O’Dell than Bloomberg. Please note the post-Aurora spike in gun sales reported by the Boston Herald’s Jessica Van Sack.
When you see the ease with which Holmes apparently purchased 6000 rounds of ammunition online and, from gun shops, a military-style assault weapon, a semi-automatic rifle and two .40 caliber Glock handguns, plus cannisters of gas, Bloomberg’s argument makes sense. The pusillanimous cowering of most politicians in the face of National Rifle Association lobbying stands in the way of gun restrictions and is contemptible.
Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern maintains that mass murder will not be stopped by gun control. We remember the most notorious incidents: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords, Charles Whitman at the U. Texas tower. According to Fox, since the 1970’s, the number of such shootings, on varied scale, has held at about two dozen a year. Fox says that gun control might reduce the overall level of gun violence but not eliminate the mass murderer, often a twisted, premeditative, violent loner, who plans and executes the crime and often commits suicide afterward. Such incidents, Fox maintains, are one of the “painful consequences of the freedoms we enjoy.”
I’m not willing to let it go at that. So great is today’s level of gun violence that Jessica Ghawi, one of the tragic victims in Aurora, had narrowly missed being shot just a month ago in a shooting spree in a Toronto mall. As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker after Virginia Tech in 2007, other countries (e.g. France, England, Scotland, Australia) have passed gun restrictions in the wake of mass murders and none has seen a repeat of the horrific incident which prompted the new rules. Yet here we go again.
Every time there’s a mass murder, we go into a frenzy of debating gun control (versus arming vigilantes), violence in the media- especially video games -, changing security at entrances to public venues. (See Ty Burr’s thoughtful piece in today’s Boston Globe about how violent movies feed the fantasies of people who feel powerless.) We don’t want to live in an authoritarian environment, but isn’t it time to pass reasonable restrictions on gun ownership? What legitimate hunter or anxious homeowner needs an assault rifle?
Bringing back the assault rifle ban should be a minimum and immediate goal, even before we get to resolving the inadequacies of the data base used to check potential gun owners, or addressing the ratcheting up of violence that certain video games and movies are foisting on the public. This time, can’t we convert the pontificating into action?