There was another mass killing in a public place this week. In Aurora, Colorado, a young man named James Holmes attended a late-night showing of the new Batman movie in a suburban movie theater. He sneaked out of the theater, using an exit door which he propped open. Holmes grabbed a bag containing an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns from his car, and also quickly put on head-to-toe body armor. He then returned to the theater, re-entered through the propped door, and tossed a tear gas grenade into the seats. Holmes then proceeded to kill twelve people and wound another 58 in a hail of gunfire, before surrendering to police outside the theater.
In the wake of this event, public reaction and political commentary has been fairly consistent with that which followed previous mass-murder events at schools, post offices, and restaurants. While a few people used the word “shocking” to describe the Aurora massacre, Americans in general are less shocked by these events in recent years. Certainly the Columbine massacre shocked most Americans, and the Virginia Tech shooting did as well. When Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was badly wounded and forced to give up her seat, that was less shocking- perhaps because the body count was lower. Several of these events occur annually, so we have come to expect them.
It was predictable for this event to give rise to renewed calls for gun control. Holmes acquired all his weapons, body armor, and ammunition legally. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City quickly called for national politicians to show leadership in making gun control a policy priority. But both men running in this year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, showed zero interest in the subject of gun control. In general, it has been true for the past decade that the success of the NRA in punishing politicians for raising the topic of gun control has resulted in a lack of interest in the subject. A few calls for gun control may come from Democratic Party politicians serving in safe seats, but the efforts quickly are shelved by whatever legislative body is involved.
Right wing commentators made renewed calls for Americans to carry concealed weapons, arguing that Holmes could easily have been stopped by a determined person armed with a handgun. This argument is laughable, as Holmes wore body armor from head to foot. It would be very challenging for anyone to hit the small target of Holmes face with a handgun bullet in a darkened and smoky theater filled with screaming people while he fired back with an AR-15 semi-automatic.
In the absence of any practical policy prescriptions from the right wing or the left wing in the wake of the Aurora massacre, we are in a position of accepting that nothing will be done about the mass murder problem in the USA. Gun control is politically off limits. Arming all citizens with handguns is an unrealistic solution, when mentally ill perpetrators have the ability to arm themselves with much greater firepower, and arrange the circumstances of the attack to achieve total surprise. TSA-style checks in all public places in the USA are not possible in terms of sheer manpower. We are left with a status quo which is not going to change.
For many Americans, despite the lip service paid to these events in terms of praying and mourning, mass murder is not actually seen as a big problem. We cling to the illusion of safety, telling ourselves that we can avoid such dangers. Yet it is quite clear that the random nature of mass murder introduces a tiny risk that any of us could die any time we go to a public place. So far, it is apparent that Americans can live with this risk, which is of course smaller than the chance of dying in a car crash on our busy roads.
The next time we experience a mass murder at the hands of a mentally disturbed young man, we can expect it to follow a similar script. At first there is horror, and calls for prayer and soul searching. Then there is a brief round of blame-pointing between the right and left of the political spectrum. Within a week, all is forgotten, and we pretend that it will never happen again, until the next time.