Sunday, August 5, 2012

Nation Likely to Take Latest Mass Shooting in Stride

      Barely two weeks after James Holmes’s deadly rampage at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, the United States experienced another mass shooting on Sunday (Aug. 5): this one, at the unlikely site of a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb. The casualty count: six victims killed, plus the presumed shooter, fatally wounded after he fired on police; three others were wounded.
      The shooter was identified on Monday as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran reportedly with a decade-long history in white supremacist organizations. Page might have mistakenly directed hatred of Muslims toward the turban-wearing Sikhs, or he might have been an all-purpose racist. Whatever his motive, this much can be said with confidence: the shooting will have no appreciable effect, if any, on the regulation of firearms in the United States, nationally or at the state or local level.
      A political system capable of responding to current events certainly would have devoted more attention than it did to Holmes’s ghoulish July 20 attack on a post-midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Dressed in body armor and his hair dyed orange, the self-proclaimed “Joker” sprayed a crowded theater with gunfire from an assault rifle, killing 12 and wounding 58 others.
      Holmes used an AR-15 rifle outfitted with a high-capacity drum magazine in the shooting. The federal ban on assault weapons enacted in 1994 prohibited the manufacture of both items, but Congress allowed the law to “sunset” a decade later, in 2004. In the months before the shooting, Holmes also legally acquired other weapons, two pistols and a shotgun, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to police.
      Throughout the country, Americans reacted to the unspeakable tragedy with shock and grief — but not the country’s political leaders. White House press secretary Jay Carney initially brushed off any suggestion to reconsider federal gun laws. A few days later, President Obama went so far as to tell the Urban League on July 25 that he believes most gun owners would support a ban on private possession of assault weapons. But Obama stopped short of actually saying Congress should consider such a measure.
      Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney managed to be even less useful in furthering debate on the issues. Speaking on the same day as Obama, Romney dismissed the need for new gun control laws based on the mistaken understanding that Holmes had acquired the weapons illegally. “It was illegal for him to have many of those things already. But he had them," Romney told NBC News in an interview.
      Romney turned aside Brian Williams’ question whether he stood by his position as governor of Massachusetts in signing an assault weapons ban into law. Instead of new laws, Romney prescribed “changing the heart of the American people.”
      A few days later, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia added a few comments to the discussion by recognizing, in an interview on Fox News Sunday, that the recently recognized individual right to possess firearms still permits “reasonable” limitations on gun ownership and carriage. But Scalia could not resist musing out loud whether the Second Amendment might allow hand-held rocket launchers as a weapon of self-defense.
      Once the 24/7 news cycle had digested Scalia’s remarks, the nation was ready to move on to other issues, chiefly the economy, and to other amusements: the Olympics and the political horse race. Admittedly, the political calendar is not conducive to serious legislating. Congress has just started a month-long recess for the political conventions, and the nation faces a potential cliffhanger of a presidential election in November.
      In addition, mass shootings, as much as they may seize the nation’s attention, are not ideal vehicles for changing public policy. “Mass killers are determined, deliberate and dead-set on murder,” James Alan Fox, a law professor at Northeastern University, wrote in a commentary on after the Aurora shooting. Stronger gun control laws will not deter the mass killer, Fox said, even though he added in a postscript that he supports “certain reasonable gun restrictions.”
      The assault weapons ban would seem to pass this test. Military-style rifles equipped with high-capacity magazines seem ill suited for self-defense in the home or for sport at the shooting range or in field or forest. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has compiled a 90-page list of shootings since 2004 with confirmed or suspected use of assault weapons. Some ended with no or minimal injuries, and many perhaps would have been no more dangerous if less lethal weapons had been used. In many of the instances, however, the use of once-banned assault weapons added to the casualty count.
      Americans seemingly agree. In a Time poll in June 2011, 62 percent of those surveyed said they favored a ban on semiautomatic rifles except for the military and police compared to 35 percent who said instead that “more” should be done to protect rights of gun owners. In the same poll, a majority — 51 percent — said they favored making gun laws “stricter.” Only 7 percent wanted gun laws to be “less strict.” Surely, a quickie poll in the wake of Aurora would spike higher for stronger gun laws.
      The United States has the dubious position of leading industrialized countries in firearm deaths. A new ad by big-city mayors, aired during the Olympics on Sunday, warned that 48,000 Americans will be murdered by guns during the next president’s four-year term. But nothing in the two weeks since Aurora suggests that either of the presidential candidates is eager to address the issue.

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