Will we even pretend to do anything to prevent the next mass shooting by a crazed loner? I doubt it. We’ll just add Aurora to the growing list — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson — and wait for the inevitable.

When that next atrocity comes, we’ll tell each other we’re shocked and stunned, knowing full well we should be neither. We’ll probe the assailant’s life in search of a motive, knowing full well we won’t find one that makes any sense. We’ll comfort the survivors and the victims’ families and assure them their suffering will not be in vain.

Meanwhile, somewhere out there, another disturbed young man will be purchasing an assault rifle and making unspeakable plans.

I can only conclude that we, as a society, have decided this state of affairs is acceptable, that the occasional murderous rampage is the price we pay for … for what? For freedom? For the Second Amendment? For campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association?

Forgive me if I sound cynical. I’m afraid I am. Five years ago, I arrived on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., just hours after student Seung Hui Cho’s murderous rampage left 33 dead, including himself. I will never forget what it felt like — the stunned disbelief, the white-hot anger, the unbearable sadness of so many young lives being extinguished for no reason, no higher purpose. No purpose at all.

I was there as a journalist, so I interviewed witnesses and survivors, took notes, wrote columns. But I was hardly an objective observer because I’m a father who has sent two sons off to college.

And to the movies.

At Sunday night’s prayer vigil in Aurora, speakers took pains not to mention the name of the assailant who murdered 12 people at the premiere of the new Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” President Obama, too, deliberately failed to mention the killer’s name in his remarks. It was appropriate to keep the focus on the victims rather than the monster.

But James Eagan Holmes does have a name — and an all-too-familiar story. An intense young man becomes unmoored, obsessed, unhinged, somehow divorced from reality. Those who notice the change have no authority to do anything. He assembles a high-powered arsenal obviously meant not for sport but for killing.

Almost before the last shell casing clatters to the ground, the fruitless debate begins: Do we focus on the man or the gun?

Clearly, there are two issues involved in these mass killings. The more difficult one has to do with mental health.

We know that young adulthood is a volatile time for young men in general. We know that symptoms of a number of serious mental disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia, typically appear between the teens and the mid-30s. We know that the mobility that characterizes modern life can foster a sense of rootlessness, perhaps a sense of alienation.

We also know that parents and other loved ones are often powerless to intervene — if, indeed, they even become aware of a potential problem. There is no simple way to identify the handful of individuals who are quietly spinning out of control, unseen behind closed doors. We should make society more caring; we should be more connected with one another. But this does not constitute a legislative agenda.

The simple issue is access to weapons and explosives. Among the three guns that Holmes brought into the movie theater was a Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle with an oversized 100-round magazine. This weapon jammed, according to police, leaving Holmes with a shotgun and a pistol. Had the assault rifle worked properly, the toll surely would have been much higher.

An unstable person can walk into a gun shop and buy a weapon designed for deadly combat. No meaningful questions asked. Have a nice day, Mr. Joker.

This is crazy. Minimal gun control — such as prohibiting assault weapons — wouldn’t eliminate these massacres, but it would prevent some and mitigate others. Lives would be saved. Congress should pass an assault weapons ban this morning and the president should sign it tonight.

Right. Dream on. Instead, we’ll argue endlessly about whether we should focus on the man or the gun, and the effect will be to focus on neither. The next James Holmes is out there, so is his instrument of murder, and we will do nothing to keep them apart.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group


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