The common denominator in mass shootings is the use of firearms. Variables such as political ideology, religious fervor and mental illness are motivating factors, but death comes from the gun.
Until our society recognizes that simple truth, the list of place names that recently added Colorado Springs and San Bernardino will have no end.
I don’t know which is more obscene, the fact that deadly shooting rampages have become almost routine or the way we so quickly seek to make each incident follow a familiar script.
This process played out Wednesday after 14 victims were gunned down in San Bernardino. Quickly the speculation began. The carnage happened at an agency that worked with the developmentally disabled — not the kind of public place that terrorists generally choose for attacks. The alleged assailant worked for the county health department, which was having a Christmas party there, so maybe this was the “disgruntled employee” story line. But there were two shooters, which would be weird in a workplace dispute. And they had Muslim-sounding names. And one of them was described as religiously “devout,” a word often used to imply saintliness in Christians and fanaticism in Muslims. So maybe it was terrorism after all.
But it turns out that one of the alleged shooters was a woman. And that the couple was man and wife. And that before the shooting, they casually dropped their infant off with Grandma, saying they had a doctor’s appointment. Is that what you do when you’re about to kill a bunch of people and then die in a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style shootout with police?
As of this writing, the San Bernardino massacre does not yet conform to one of the politically convenient templates. We’ll make it fit eventually, though. If the motive is deemed to have anything to do with religion, the far right will be able to rail about putting mosques under surveillance and giving the National Security Agency carte blanche to snoop into Americans’ lives. If an office-related grudge was the cause, we can all spend a couple of weeks bemoaning the inadequacy of mental health services in this country, then do nothing about it.
In the case of the Planned Parenthood mass shooting in Colorado Springs, by contrast, we’ve already retreated to our ideological corners. The accused killer reportedly told police “no more baby parts,” so must have been inspired by incendiary anti-abortion rhetoric. Or else political speech had nothing to do with the atrocity, since the man is clearly deranged.
The truth is surely “all of the above.” What balanced, well-adjusted person is capable of mass murder?
After every incident, someone launches the mental-health discussion but it leads nowhere. Is Congress going to approve some sort of massive new program of screening and treatment? Is the nation ever going back to the days of involuntary commitment? No and no.
Likewise, we can argue to no end about political or religious motivations. I do fear that Muslims will become even more stigmatized, but the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom is absolute. Similarly, I deplore extreme political rhetoric that might inspire the vulnerable to commit violence — but the truth is that I probably deplore it more if it’s rhetoric I disagree with.
What we ought to do is stick to the facts, and the facts of these mass shootings are the guns.
More than 30,000 people are killed by firearms in this country each year. We are riveted when the victims number in double digits or hostages are taken or the venue is a place like Planned Parenthood or Sandy Hook Elementary School, but these killing sprees are but a drop in the bucket of blood.
About two-thirds of deaths by gunshot are suicides. (Cue the mental health discussion.) How many of these people would find other ways to kill themselves if a gun were not at hand? Some, surely, but not all.
Most of the remaining gun deaths are homicides. Other countries have people with mental illness and disgruntled employees and jihadist preachers and political fanatics of every stripe, but no other developed nation has a body count remotely this high. The only difference is that, in the United States, virtually anyone can amass an arsenal of handguns and assault rifles.
As long as there are as many guns in this country as there are people, as long as we don’t meaningfully restrict firearm purchases or keep track of weapons, we will have mass shootings and individual killings and gun suicides. Tragically, this is the choice we make.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.