Thursday, October 5, 2017

Our 21st century normal -- the routine of mass shootings -- Oct. 5, 2017 column


Not even the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history surprises us.

Shocked, saddened, angry – yes, all three. But if we’re honest we aren’t surprised anymore when a monster with a high-powered weapon – or weapons -- kills many people he has never met.

We’ve developed a sickening ritual around mass murder. The news comes with horrifying images and the awful audio of staccato pops and screams. Then, inspiring stories of true heroes, the brave first responders, and heart-rending bios of victims whose lives are tragically cut short.

We pray and hold moments of silence and candlelight vigils. We ponder how someone could do the unthinkable.

Politicians play their assigned roles: The president makes somber remarks, congressional Republicans demand that Democrats stop politicizing the tragedy, and Democrats call for sensible gun control. The gun lobby hunkers down.    

And we go on to the next man-made catastrophe.

We’ve had more than half a century to learn the drill. On Aug. 1, 1966, a young man dragged a footlocker with three rifles, two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and provisions – including Spam, canned peaches, toilet paper and deodorant -- to the observation deck on the 30th floor of the University of Texas Tower.

He took aim from his high perch and started shooting. When the 96-minute rampage was over, 14 people were dead, and at least 33 others were wounded.

A campus became a killing field. Americans were shocked, saddened, angry – and, yes, surprised. How could this happen?

The shooter was a university student named Charles Whitman, 25, a former Eagle Scout, ex-Marine, sharpshooter. He had killed his mother and wife hours earlier.  
Whitman, it turned out, had complained of severe headaches and depression and had told a psychiatrist he fantasized about killing people from the Tower.

He left a suicide note asking that his brain be examined to “see if there is any mental disorder.”

Doctors found a malignant brain tumor the size of a pecan but were never sure if it affected Whitman’s behavior. Experts still don’t agree on his motive.

Motive is again the question as we desperately try to make sense of senseless carnage, this time on the Las Vegas strip.

Stephen Paddock, 64, had no police record. A high-stakes gambler, he checked into the Mandalay Bay resort and casino with 10 suitcases. On Sunday night, he set up guns at two windows in his 32nd floor suite. He rained bullets down on a country music festival, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 500. He killed himself as police approached.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, a forensics expert at George Mason University, believes Paddock may have studied Whitman to prepare for his rampage. It’s possible. Paddock was 13 when Whitman made worldwide news. So far, though, there’s no evidence he did so.

Paddock reportedly had 23 guns and 12 “bump stocks” at the hotel. The device makes a semiautomatic rifle act like an automatic, so instead of having to pull the trigger time after time, he could spray bullets as if he had a machine gun.

Congressional Republicans insist it’s too soon to consider gun control legislation – but it always is. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced a bill Wednesday to make bump stocks and similar devices illegal.

Even before Feinstein introduced the bill, gun shops around the country reported a spike in sales of bump stocks. Banning the lethal device is eminently sensible, so it probably won’t happen.

“Nothing will change after the Las Vegas shooting” was the chilling headline in The New York Times on an op-ed by former Rep. Steve Israel, Democrat of New York.

The National Rifle Association used to support sensible measures but “now is forced to oppose them because of competing organizations,” Israel wrote.

Part of the blame goes to redistricting, which pulls Republicans farther right, making them more subject to the NRA’s score, he said, and part to Americans’ numbness to gun violence.

“You’ll watch or listen to the news and shake your head, then flip to another channel or another app,” Israel wrote. “This horrific event will recede into our collective memory.”

That’s what happened in 1966. It sadly has happened hundreds of times since and very likely will happen again. It’s the routine we have chosen. 


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