The United States has suffered yet another bloody massacre of its citizens — by one of its own. The immediate reaction to a bloodbath in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded was shock and horror at the scale and senselessness of the tragedy.
But the extraordinary truth is that this happens too often to be considered just another “tragedy.” It was mass murder facilitated by complicity, if not cowardice. The ease with which Americans can get access to high-powered weapons that serve as instruments of slaughter is impossible for any non-American to comprehend.
Mr. James Eagan Holmes was a quiet, unassuming medical student with a pretty impressive record but little else to distinguish him — until July 20. On the evening of that day in Aurora, Colorado, he bought a ticket for an early screening for “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman movie.
After entering the theater, he propped the exit door open, exited and then returned, outfitted in bulletproof gear and toting automatic weapons. He fired at random into the crowd, killing or wounding dozens of people before he was captured. He has been in jail since then, making no comments at his preliminary hearings.
The Aurora slaughter is the latest in an appallingly long list of similar atrocities. The most horrific highlights include the 1999 killings at Columbine High School, also in Colorado, that resulted in 13 lives lost, and 24 injured.
In 2007, another disgruntled student opened fire at Virginia Tech University, killing 32 and wounding 17.
Only last year, another lone gunmen killed six people and injured still more when he started shooting at a U.S. Congresswoman holding a town hall meeting for constituents in Arizona. And to prove that this madness is not a uniquely American trait.
A year ago a Norwegian man meticulously planned an operation — sadly, there is no other word for it — that claimed the lives of 77 people, many of them children and teenagers.
Incredibly, the latest attack, like those before it, has not changed American thinking about access to such weapons. Yes, we know the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution enshrines a right to guns, but it beggars belief that the right has been interpreted as it has. There are, as best we can see, no practical limits on the weapons a U.S. citizen can own.
Mr. Holmes was able to spend more than $15,000 in recent months buying firearms, ammunition and explosives. When he re-entered the theater, he had a .223-caliber Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, with a 100-round magazine in the gun.
In total, Mr. Holmes had purchased more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition. But since he did not buy handguns within five days at the same store and had no prior offenses, no alarm bells went off. One ammunition dealer observed that buying at that volume probably would have earned him a discount, not heightened scrutiny.
A decade ago, Mr. Holmes could not have legally purchased his rifle: A 1994 law banned 19 military-style assault weapons and magazines holding more than 10 bullets. That law lapsed in 2004 and there have been no major national gun regulations in the U.S. since, except for one law that sought to improve state reporting for federal background checks.
The result is a nation awash with guns — some 270 million in the hands of the civilians. No other country comes close. It also produces unending tragedy and heartbreak: An anti-gun lobbying group reckons more than 100,000 people are shot each year, producing in 2010 more than 30,000 deaths, when homicides, suicides and accidental deaths are combined
What accounts for this seeming indifference to the extraordinary human cost of this flood of weapons? Fatalism is part of the explanation: The governor of Colorado, after the Aurora shooting, suggested that if Mr. Holmes had not had access to guns, he would have merely built a bomb.
Others look to culture, noting that the history of the U.S. has been written with weapons, from the settling of the nation and the Revolutionary War to its western expansion. In some states, early settlers were required by law to have weapons to provide for the common defense. The Second Amendment codifies that thinking.
The real answer is more mundane. More restrictive gun laws are likely impossible because of the power and influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), a 4-million-strong gun lobby that opposes all restrictions on guns and ammunition ownership and use. The NRA is the most powerful and feared group in Washington D.C. and any state capital, as its members are single minded in their opposition, and privilege that issue above all others. That allows them to prevail over the majority of Americans who approve of existing gun restrictions or want to see more.
That power has produced a resounding silence in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings, a silence that was equally profound after Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot last year.
Of course, as some gun rights defenders insist, it is people who kill people, and yes, as one U.S. senator noted, these are “sick demented individuals.” But the ease with which those individuals can get their hands on such firepower is incomprehensible.
The logic that more guns, not less, makes a society safer is equally absurd. Until it is repudiated, the U.S. will endure more such atrocities and tragedies.