Every time I hear a commentator refer to the most recent mass murder as the "Colorado Tragedy," my blood starts to boil. These killings should be called "The Aurora, Colo., massacre: the latest in a long line of gun-inflicted mass murders." That's accurate, specific and puts the event in perspective - the whole purpose of news commentary. But many in the media prefer to take their lead from the National Rifle Association playbook, even when facing hard truth from the barrel of a semi-automatic weapon.
In its the-more-guns-the-better mantra, the NRA works tirelessly to convince the American public that mass murder shootings are simply "tragic" events beyond our control, akin to lightning strikes starting forest fires. According to this line of thinking, it's mentally ill people, not guns, who are at the heart of the problem. The fallacy of this position should be self-evident. While emotionally disturbed, violence-prone individuals are found throughout the modern industrial world, only in this country do they have easy access to guns, including military-style weapons.
Alleged Colorado mass murderer James Holmes was armed with a semi-automatic weapon, a shotgun and two .40-caliber Glock handguns, all purchased legally. He also had thousands of rounds of ammunition that were bought online, no more difficult to obtain, as one observer noted, then buying a book on Amazon.
In 1994, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that prohibited the civilian use of certain semi-automatic assault weapons as well as magazines for those weapons that held more than 10 rounds. Thanks to the NRA and its supporters, when the law expired in 2004, with gun-lobby-friendly George W. Bush in the White House, it was not renewed.
Over the past few years, a growing number of police chiefs have been speaking out against the proliferation of assault rifles. After two of his officers were gunned down, Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross stated, "These are state-of-the-art weapons. ... No body armor would have saved our officers. ... Many of them (the rounds from these weapons) are capable of slicing through a vehicle. This is how deadly they are." Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty stated there is "no practical reason" why a civilian would need an AR-15 or similar-style military weapon.
While there have been gun-inflicted mass murders in other countries - the slaughter of so many people in Norway last year, for example - these incidents are the exception, not the norm. As columnist Larry Siegel stated, "No other prosperous country not torn by civil conflict has anything like our volume of mass killing." I would add "gun inflicted" mass killings.
Using FBI homicide data, criminologists James Allen Fox and Jack Levin counted 636 mass murders (defined as the killing of four or more people in single event, not including the perpetrator) between 1976 and 2002, or two such killings a month. Just over 75 percent of these crimes were firearms killings, with the typical offender a white male under 30 years of age.
Many, if not most, mass killers had no previous criminal records and, therefore, had no trouble legally purchasing firearms. While a significant number of these perpetrators are quiet, reserved (sometimes) loners, there are, according to James Fox, "thousands of people who fit this pattern and do not kill anyone. You can't use it to predict who will become a mass murderer. These are not red flags, but yellow ones. They become red only in retrospect, when the blood flows."
It's amazing how the nation has acquiesced to these gun-related slaughters. In 1980, almost 80 percent of Americans were of the opinion that gun control laws should be more stringent. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 44 percent. If the last half-dozen or so mass murders had occurred at the hands of foreign terrorists, we would have gone to war. For all the misery and anguish they produce (especially for family members of the victims), gun-related mass killings are tolerated by the American public and follow a predictable pattern: the shooting, collective shock and outrage ("How could this happen?"), burying the dead and words of consolation from religious and political leaders, and business as usual until the next gun-inflicted mass murder.
In the weeks and months following a mass gun killing, "preventative" measures are often discussed. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that claimed 32 lives, one idea was to have metal detectors at all entrance points to the campus to check for weapons. Assuming this strategy worked, what would prevent a determined individual from shooting students in the many places they congregate OFF campus: bars, bookstores, restaurants and coffee houses? Similarly, metal detectors at movie theaters would do nothing more than shift the carnage from inside a building to people standing in line outside to enter. Preventative public space gun-related mass murder strategies are little more than delusional, feel-good, false-sense-of-security nonsense.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama vowed to reinstate the expired assault weapon ban. To date, President Obama has failed to make good on that promise. Mr. Obama finally addressed the issue of assault weapons in a recent speech, stating that "a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals. They belong on the battlefield of war, not in the streets of our cities." Speaking of the president's call for "common sense" gun-control measures, Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence noted that "a speech is not a plan."
As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney enacted a ban on assault weapons, noting at the bill's signing that these firearms were "instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people." Now he opposes any new gun legislation, arguing these laws will not make "all bad things go away." Nobody said they would, but outlawing assault weapons (permanently this time) would be a step in the right direction.
On a more optimistic note, a just-released survey conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found broad support among NRA members and other gun owners for firearms restrictions, often contrary to NRA policies. For example, 68 percent of respondents believe that individuals arrested for domestic violence should not be eligible for gun permits.
Caught between the inaction of our leaders and the unyielding, "Citizens have the right to own unlimited quantities of military-style weapons regardless of how many people are slaughtered" position of the NRA, we can do little more than wait for the next bloodbath.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of words have been written about the Colorado killings. With the exception of the names of the victims and the shooter, many of these same words will be penned about the next gun massacre, and the one after that, and the next one, and ...
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
Begley, S. (July 24, 2012) "Accused Colorado killer no easy fit for mass murder profile," The Chicago Tribune, www.chicagotribune.com
Fox, J. And J. Levin (2005) "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder," Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, Calif.
"Gun control continues to lack support despite Colorado shooting" (July 22, 2012) Newsday, newyork.newsday.com
Haake, G. (July 27, 2012) "Romney on NBC: Changing gun laws won't make all bad things go away," First Read, firstread.msnbc.msn.com
Huettman, E. (July 27, 2012) "Call to Both Campaigns for Plan on Gun Violence," The New York Times, www.nytimes.com
"Obama takes on gun violence in New Orleans speech" (July 25, 2012) CNNPolitics, politicaltickerblogs.cnn.com
"Piers Morgan Grills Romney on Gun Control: 'What Does It Take To Change the Gun Culture?'" (July 26, 2012) MEDIAite, www.mediaite.com
Siegel, L. (Nov. 11, 2009) "America's Mass Murder Addiction," The Daily Beast, www.dailybeast.com
Sullivan, A. (July 25, 2012) "Do NRA Members Support More Gun Restrictions Than Members of Congress Do?" The New Republic, www.tnr.com
"What Law Enforcement Says About Assault Weapons" (2012 accessed), Coalition To Stop Gun Violence, www.csgv.org