Another week, another murderous rampage.
This time, once again, it happened at a school, specifically a university. It took place in what the media describe as the “scenic” and “idyllic” small seaside college town of Isla Vista near the University of California at Santa Barbara. Six innocent people and the perpetrator, Elliot Rodger, 22, died in the incident. Seven others are hospitalized, two in serious condition.
We have become so inured in this nation to these constant killings that seven deaths, judged by the scale of other similar bloodlettings, like the murder of twenty children and six adults in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, seem almost seem ordinary.
There is, of course, nothing ordinary about seven young people whose lives were cut short or seven families devastated and marked for life by the tragedy. Nor is there anything inevitable about this or any of the other abominable massacres that have been taking place, with apparently increasing frequency and deadliness, since Columbine.
Each rampage has its common denominators as well as its unique aspects. Virtually all the young rampage killers are very, very angry people – angry at certain groups, angry at the world – and ready and able to act out their hatred with lethal consequences. Many have serious and often untreated psychological problems. Often, they feel excluded or rejected or ridiculed by their peers or some subset of them. Elliot Rodger, for instance, went on his killing spree because he couldn’t get girls to like him. It seems a good reason to hit the gym or get some acne cream, but a motive for mass murder?
Bizarre thinking, anger, and feelings of isolation all play a role in these tragedies. The National Rifle Association (NRA), arguably the most powerful lobby in the country, and the many gun huggers for whom the Second Amendment is more holy than all Ten Commandments together, would like us to think they are the sole cause.
But there is another exceedingly important factor. That is that the awesome power of the gun manufacturers, the NRA, and the Second Amendment fundamentalists – along with a right-wing Supreme Court – have ensured that the gun laws in this country are simply insane. Or, to put it another way, there are virtually no effective gun laws in this nation. Almost any nut can get a gun, including a military-style assault rifle. The requirement of a background check has a loophole – the gun show exception – that you can drive a tank through.
The gun lobby likes to say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That is a boldfaced lie at a prima facie level. The omnipresence of guns guarantees that many people, including many children, will lose their lives every year through the accidental discharge of a firearm. But the bigger and more significant lie is one of omission. What the NRA doesn’t say is that guns make it much, much easier than any other method to kill one person or dozens of people.
It’s much easier practically and psychologically to kill with a gun than to beat, bludgeon, or stab a person to death, never mind six or twenty-six people. Especially in mass killing, guns are by far the most effective tools. That’s why the vast majority of homicidal rampages are carried out with guns. That’s why armies, guerrillas, and gangs are equipped with rapid-fire, lethal assault weapons, not knives or baseball bats.
Hatred, criminal insanity, fanaticism, and pure evil exist everywhere and in every age. And these traits are a necessary condition for mass homicide. But they are not a sufficient condition. That is what the gun supplies. Guns are incredibly efficient force-multipliers for those intent on large-scale slaughter.
This country is awash with guns. There are around 270 million civilian guns in the United States. They kill 30,000 people a year and wound 50,000. Is it any wonder events like those at Isla Vista have become almost commonplace?
A recent study comparing homicide rates in 22 rich countries found the homicide rate in the United States seven times higher than the combined average of the other economically advanced nations. Now, there is a more than a bit of truth in what black militant H. Rap Brown famously said: “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”
But are we seven times more inclined to homicide than people in other societies similar to ours? Or is our astronomical homicide rate as much or more the consequence of political decisions that have made the best weapons for doing each other in almost as readily available as Coca Cola?