The latest terrorist act of violence committed in our society (I’m pretty sure it is a “terrorizing” act to begin shooting in a crowded, dark theatre), will bring the usual detailed analysis of “how could someone have done this?” The “how” usually involves trying to figure out why a person would commit an act of violence like this. The answer, not invariably but often, includes personal trauma and social isolation… but someday, it will be apparent that someone does this “just for fun.” Maybe it is this time. Early reports indicate that the shooter entered the theatre during a shooting scene in the movie, in a flak jacket and gas mask, proceeded to release two canisters of gas, and then commenced firing into the crowd. One theatre-goer reported that he thought it was all just a part of the show. A commenter at the New York Times notes that, “Reading some comments on a youtube cellphone video, some people seem to say that the shooter created a thread on a website called “9gag” where he said he was going to do this and people commented on his thread encouraging him or betting he would not…”
But the real answer to the “how” question is: he did it with a gun. No other weapon could have made possible this mass violence, short of various poisonous gases (which, I’m happy to say, we control very rigorously). “He did it with a gun” also applies to George Zimmerman, a completely untrained and evidently disturbed civilian who apparently fancied himself a police officer in his aggresive neighborhood watch activities. The same is true of the vicious attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The same is true of the campus shootings, the high school shootings – they all did it with a gun. At one point in American history, after the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan, we were moving toward a kind of sanity about guns. But that day unfortunately seems long past. The obvious response to these tragedies – strict gun control – will likely not be taken seriously. As this Washington Post piece indicates, many seem absolutely committed to unrestricted gun availability. Instead, states will continue to make it more and more possible to obtain and carry any kind of weapon in any kind of location, under the mantra of “protection.”
I think, from a secular point of view, this is stunningly disruptive. Salman Rushdie posted on his twitter feed: “The ‘right to bear arms’ is the bane of America.” @MikeBloomberg tweeted on gun control: “Maybe it’s time the 2 people running for POTUS stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it.” But from a Christian point of view – one ostensibly held by most opponents of gun control – it is inexplicable. We can and should have vigorous discussions as Christians about just violence in policing and war. But about personally carrying around a gun so we can kill people who threaten us? When it has these side effects? On what possible theological grounds can this be justified? It is surely part of what we mean by the common good to provide official security forces that “serve and protect,” and that the odds of being threatened by a random gunman are incredibly low, particularly if one takes reasonable precautions. We do not live in the Wild West. Furthermore, the shift in attitude on guns over time is stunning: in 1990, 78% of Americans favored stricter gun laws, and even around 1999-2000, the number favoring stricter laws hovered in the two-thirds range. Today, only 44% of Americans favor stricter laws. The graph (in the above WaPo article) tellingly depicts a significant swing in the years 2001-2002, when the post-9/11 “culture of fear” started sinking in more deeply. But this change, I think, is also a sign of people’s attitudes toward violence and in general toward social order.
The US bishops are on record on this:
In Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, the bishops reiterated their support for legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons. “As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.”
People use guns to kill people in this way. People are the problem, but so are the tools they use. “Sensible” gun control measures should include at the least strict monitoring of gun sales and ownership, which is the first deterrent against people thinking of carrying out “plans” as this gunman did. “Sensible” control also should mean revoking concealed-carry laws, and allowing institutions to ban guns on their premises. If someone wants to keep a registered firearm at the their bedside to protect their family, I might quarrel with that choice, but these other steps would not prevent this.
Unfortunately, the strongest advocates of gun control are big-city mayors and police forces, who know all too well that people die in gun violence like this every single day. It is a sad commentary that it takes the “suburbanization” of this violence to get people’s attention – I hope it does.