The Certainty of Even More Shootings

The mass shooting at the Sikh temple seems even more horrifying than most. Of course victims are just as dead no matter what a killer's motive. But here the "best" case interpretation would be that the gunman was merely one more psychopath who decided to take out his madness by shooting into a mass of innocents -- like those in Aurora or Tucson, at Virginia Tech, and so on -- rather than someone attempting to launch flat-out racial or religious war.

Or, maybe it would be better if something about the case made it seem different enough, threatening enough, to allow America to do what other developed nations have done after their mass-shooting episodes. Many countries have endured them; but when that happens, most other countries have been shocked enough to change the conditions that make it so easy for deranged or bigoted people to kill a lot of people in a short time. Mass murders can happen in many ways -- with bombs, poison, even knives or cleavers -- but "assault weapons" designed to emit firepower at a high rate over a sustained period (from high-capacity magazines) enormously increase a killer's destructive potential. These weapons were of course banned under a measure the Clinton Administration fought to enact in 1994. It timed out in 2004, and they are legal again.

One person who (unsuccessfully) threatened the lives of his fellow airline passengers ten-and-a-half years ago has changed air travel for every single passenger on every U.S. flight in all the time since then. We responded (and over-responded) to that episode with a "this won't happen again" determination, like other countries' response to mass shootings. It is hard to know what kind of mass killing with guns would evoke a similar determination in America. The murder of six people including a federal judge and near-killing of a Congresswoman last year obviously didn't do it. Nor, in all probability, will these latest two multi-death shootings. In their official statements of condolence yesterday, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney replicated their achievement after the Aurora murders: Neither used the word "gun."

This will happen again.
Update On this issue, unlike some others, I see things just the way The Economist does. Its headline after the Aurora shooting could have applied to this one and many others as well: "Guns don't kill crowds of innocent people; maniacs with easy access to military-grade weapons do"

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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