News of the shocking Batman movie shooting in Aurora, Colo., has energized opponents of firearms in America once again, just as other isolated incidents have done -- Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, Luby's cafeteria, Columbine High School.
Their call is always the same: more regulation or an outright ban on guns. But will more rules actually deter a madman who is hellbent on killing?
James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Boston's Northeastern University and co-author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder," wrote for CNN that it is "unreasonable to expect that we would begin a campaign to round up all the guns or all the potentially dangerous people who might have access to guns. Mass murder is regrettably one of the painful consequences of the freedoms we enjoy."
"Sadly, mass shootings have occurred in shopping malls, schools, restaurants, health clubs, churches, courthouses, post offices, almost any place that people congregate," Fox wrote. "None of us would wish to turn our public spaces into tightly secured fortresses."
That doesn't stop the Michael Bloombergs of the world or the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence from trying, however. Brady issued a statement after the theater shooting that said, predictably, "The horrendous shooting in Aurora, Colo., is yet another tragic reminder that we have a national problem of easy availability of guns in this country."
Is that really the underlying problem? Or is there something else going on? What forces are at work in society, what currents of culture, might be contributing to the warping of the minds of 24-year-old James Holmes and others like him?
Friday's shooting cannot be blamed directly on Hollywood. And yet one cannot help but wonder whether the onslaught of violent depictions in popular culture -- television, movies, video games -- over the past 40 years has not somehow planted the seeds of an ultimate devaluation of life in certain susceptible minds. Note that the entire Batman trilogy (to name one of many examples) has mass murder at the core of its apocalyptic story line, and the showmanship is pushed to the red line with all the gloss and excitement cinematic art can muster.
It can't be that, alone, of course. What else might be pulling people apart, isolating us from our flesh-and-blood neighbors, even from family members? Has there been a loosening of ties that bind us as a human family?
Television brought the horrors of war directly into American living rooms for the first time with Vietnam, and we've consumed a steady diet of increasingly explicit and deranged human behavior every since, whether in fiction or live news. Communication technology now puts violent fare on the table for all, and few seem especially horrified anymore by graphic depictions across all media of ever more grotesque acts of depravity.
It's only a movie. It's entertainment. What does this say about us as a culture?
In this context, the debate over access to guns in America seems almost irrelevant. The New York Times on Friday published a lengthy article about the history of "lax" gun laws in Colorado and showed how easy it is to get a concealed weapons permit there, and how the law allows people to have a gun in a vehicle if intended for lawful purposes.
But none of this has anything to do with the theater shooting. It's just a distraction.
Holmes, the presumed shooter, was intelligent. He was a former neuroscience student who had carefully planned the killings. He would not have been prohibited from purchasing ordinary guns because he had no criminal or mental history. Would another law on the books prevent him, a person with organized intent and no obvious red flags, from carrying out a deliberate and focused plan of murder? No.
Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law specialist at UCLA who has written extensively about guns, told the New York Times that "there's no indication that, from his record, [Holmes] is someone whom more restrictive screening procedures would have caught."
In fact, information now emerging about Holmes and the attack does not make a strong case for gun reform, Volokh said. "It's hard to prevent someone who is really bent on committing a crime from getting them. ... It's unlikely that gun laws are going to stop him."
With about two dozen incidents every year in which a person plans and carries out a multiple murder -- a number that has held steady for decades -- no new public policy readily comes to mind that would do any good, short of an outright ban on all firearms, a political impossibility and a bad idea. Even if a ban were enacted, it would have negative consequences since individuals have an absolute right to self-defense. Thousands exercise that right every year, not to mention countless others who enjoy the lawful use of firearms in other ways.
At bottom in an uncomfortable reality: A free society comes with inherent risks. One of those risks is that innocent people may be killed by a random madman. Obviously, that's not a good thing. It's just a fact.