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Mass murder at midnight

July 25, 2012

IN the felicitously named Coloradan township of Aurora late last week, 12 American citizens — ranging in age from six to 51 but most of them in their 20s —did not live to see the first light of the morning after a night out at the cinema.

Several of the 58 hospitalised with gunshot wounds were reportedly struggling to survive.

The alleged perpetrator looked dazed and confused when he appeared in court on Monday morning. Although he had surrendered calmly in the car park outside the cinema after the homicidal rampage, police said he wasn’t being cooperative.

There has, inevitably, been considerable speculation about the 24 year old’s state of mind, based largely on hearsay, but the overarching theme of much commentary has been that there were no obvious warning signs. Acquaintances describe him as a shy and innocuous young man who largely kept to himself. He had been working towards a doctorate in neuroscience but was in the process of dropping out. His only previous run-in with the law involved a speeding ticket.

It may, of course, never be conclusively established exactly what motivated his shooting spree, although the available evidence certainly suggests the act was planned well in advance, and that the occasion — the first showing, at midnight, of the latest movie in the Batman franchise — wasn’t exactly coincidental.

Yet it seems fatuous to pretend that there were no warning signs. In the couple of months leading up to his unspeakable actions, James Holmes acquired four weapons: a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and two handguns. He purchased them at local weapons stores. He is also believed to have spent thousands of dollars on buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet.

The shooting spree was thus preceded by a shopping spree. Should that not have rung an alarm bell or two, even in a country where the right to bear — and buy — arms is considered sacrosanct?

No prominent politician in the US has uttered a word about gun control since the Aurora outrage. President Barack Obama visited the township at the weekend, offering condolences and words of consolation, but without referring even obliquely to the laws that facilitate mass murder.

Sure, acts of random violence, sometimes on a huge scale, occur even in countries with considerably tighter legislation concerning the sale and possession of small arms. Norway, to cite but one example, has just commemorated the first anniversary of the Utoya massacre. But one of the reasons they are comparatively rare is that the means of perpetrating them are relatively hard to come by.

It’s extremely unlikely that anyone in Norway even thought of suggesting a year ago that if only all of the young victims had been armed, the fascist-minded Anders Breivik could have been stopped in his tracks. Yet a number of American commentators have made an analogous claim with reference to Aurora. Surely there is something profoundly perverse about such an argument being nonchalantly aired in a purportedly civilised country, let alone one that aspires to moral leadership on a global scale.

Just last month, the American news website The Daily had this to report about Obama’s home city (whose mayor is the president’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel): “The streets of Chicago are officially more dangerous than a war zone: homicide victims in the Windy City outnumber US troops killed in Afghanistan this year. While 144 Americans have died in Afghanistan in 2012, a whopping 228 Chicago residents have been killed, and the murder rate is up a staggering 35 per cent from last year.”

The Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, meanwhile, cites other discomfiting statistics: “In 2009, guns took the lives of 31,347 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. This is the equivalent of more than 85 deaths each day and more than three deaths each hour….

“Between 1955 and 1975, the Vietnam war killed over 58,000 American soldiers — less than the number of civilians killed with guns in the US in an average two-year period. In the first seven years of the US-Iraq War, over 4,400 American soldiers were killed. Almost as many civilians are killed with guns in the US, however, every seven weeks.”

In a comprehensive article in The New Yorker titled ‘Battleground America’, Jill Lepore argued last April that justifications for the weaponisation of American society are based on a misinterpretation of the second constitutional amendment, and that the gun lobby — led by the National Rifle Association —has consolidated its strength particularly in the past four decades.

Interestingly, however, the “nearly 300 million privately owned firearms” in the US belong to a shrinking number of households.

It’s not just wealth that is unevenly distributed in America, so are weapons. “In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households … in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.” If four-fifths of households choose not to own arms — and presumably many of them would rather not have others bear them either — surely there’s scope for political and moral leadership on the issue.

But apparently not in an election year. Not even in the face of the latest evidence of the horrors that more or less unrestricted gun ownership can entail. It’s easier to treat each calamity as some sort of a natural disaster: tragic, but ultimately unavoidable.

Aurora has renewed debate about whether the extreme violence portrayed in films such as The Dark Knight Rises and virtually encouraged in so many video games feeds into the societal malaise. It may be more worthwhile to ponder how America’s propensity for unleashing violence in foreign lands feeds into warped minds at home.

Whether the realisation will ever dawn on lawmakers that the sort of liberty that enables sophisticated killing machines to be purchased off-the-shelf is incompatible with the right to life and the pursuit of happiness remains an open question. As does another that was raised a half century ago: “How many deaths will it take till they know /  That too many people have died?”