Yesterday was another bizarre day in 21st century America, but when the bizarre is repeated often enough it threatens to become commonplace. That’s the truly worrisome part.
The mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 dead victims and two dead suspects was the most deadly in this country since an addled young man used an assault weapon to kill 28 people, including 20 young students, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That was less than three years ago. Yesterday’s violence followed by just five days an assault by an addled older man who used an assault weapon to kill three people, including a police officer, at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.
If you define a mass shooting as a shooting in which four or more people are injured by gunfire, which seems reasonable enough, the San Bernardino shooting was the 355th mass shooting in the United States … this year. It was the second to occur yesterday, the first taking place earlier that morning in Savannah.
And we’ve got the makings of more tragedy in the pipeline. On Friday, the same day as the Planned Parenthood killings, more background checks for gun purchases were completed than in any previous day in American history. A few of those guns will be used to kill criminals or defend the innocent. More will be used by children to accidentally kill other children, or in suicides, or in accidental shootings of someone coming home at the wrong time of night. But people make their choices and live with the consequences, and I have no problem with that as long as they are held responsible.
The San Bernardino case is difficult to categorize because it defies expectations. The two dead suspects — Syed Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27 — were parents of an infant whom they left in the care of Farook’s mother when they dashed out for an “appointment.” Farook was a U.S. citizen, born and raised in this country, with a good job as a county health inspector. Friends, family and co-workers report no knowledge of Islamic radicalization, although further investigation is of course necessary. Two of the four guns used in the attack have been traced so far, and both were acquired legally, because of course they were. And the target that they chose was a holiday party of Farook’s co-workers in the county health department, and many other potential victims at the scene were left unharmed.
So … jihad? Workplace revenge, like that perpetrated last year at a FedEx warehouse in Kennesaw? We don’t know, but I suspect it doesn’t matter much to the friends and families of their 14 dead victims. You can drive yourself crazy trying to make sense of the senseless.
But to give us a sense of perspective, let’s look at some data:
Since 1994, the number of murders and non-negligent manslaughter committed with firearms has been cut almost in half. The overall murder rate has been cut by more than half. And no, the decline is not caused by armed civilians intervening to prevent crime. The number of justifiable homicides by a civilian with a firearm was an almost negligible 316 back in 1994, and it had dropped to 229 in 2014.
So in a general sense, we’re making real progress. That’s important to keep in mind. We’re clearly succeeding in reducing what might be called “discriminate violence,” the typical murders in which victim and perpetrator have some relationship. What seems to be increasing, although we lack FBI data in this case, is “indiscriminate violence,” violence in which the angry and disgruntled and disturbed among us gain legal access to powerful firearms and inflict blind carnage. And in many ways that’s more frightening and unsettling.
So what do we do?
I’ve already proposed to ban the sale of ammunition to anyone who cannot demonstrate that they have passed a background check and taken a gun-safety course. Those are minimal steps that every responsible citizen who wants ammunition for hunting, sport shooting and self-defense would have no problem completing, without impingement on their Second Amendment rights. They are also steps that would deter the delusional and criminal. It would by no means solve the problem of gun violence, but it would save lives.
I would also ban the sale, commercial or private, of semiautomatic military-style assault weapons with a capacity of more than 10 rounds, and require the registration of those weapons already in private hands just as fully automatic versions are required to be registered.
I would ban the civilian sale of body armor and other paramilitary equipment that feeds the fantasies of the delusional and those with terrorist ambitions. And I would attempt to delegitimize and deglamorize the notion that the Second Amendment enshrines the gun as some legitimate tool of political expression, because it does not. No court has ever embraced that reading, and no politician should endorse it even tacitly. The theory of the gun as a means of forcing political change is the theory of the terrorist.
In a more rational political environment, of course, none of those steps would be controversial. They respect and protect the gun rights of responsible law-abiding Americans while protecting public safety, but because they would also inflame the fears of the paranoid, they cannot even be seriously considered. It’s a bizarre situation, but again, we’ve grown so accustomed to the bizarre that we no longer see it as such.