It took literally minutes for politics to get twisted into the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. ABC News’ Brian Ross (the same journalist who slandered former House Speaker Dennis Hastert with an unattributed and false report that he was a target of a criminal probe) took to the air to link the shooter to the Tea Party. The claim was quickly unmasked as a breathtaking stupidity, based on connecting a shared, reasonably common name that is worn by a couple dozen people in the Denver phonebook.
Then, when the link between James Holmes and the ideological right was severed, it took minutes more to unearth the politics of gun control. The Internet and cable news are already awash with the notion that Holmes’ atrocity is an indictment of any number of related sins, from permissive gun laws in general, to the ease of obtaining tear gas and ammunition on the web, to the fecklessness of candidates and congressmen in the face of the NRA’s might, to the inevitable wages of a society that endorses gun possession as a constitutional liberty at all.
Americans typically dig for social and institutional causes for the most unfathomable examples of evil. It’s not only liberal talk show hosts who were quick to tie the coarsening of the political culture to the slaughter at a congressional event in Arizona in 2011. Our instinct of forces larger than us driving our destiny, a religious and psychological strand in our thinking, ill prepares us for the power a loner caught in his own warped view can wield.
But incredulity is rarely the best place to gain perspective on a policy debate. In the light of day, Holmes is not Jared Lee Loughner, Gabby Giffords’ shooter who had left a trail of mental illness and potential threat that arguably could have been sifted out before he purchased firearms. To the contrary, Holmes was functional enough to be a standout student in a rigorous discipline as recently as a couple of years ago. He had no record, mental or criminal, and it is worth noting that the federal assault weapon ban that expired a few years ago would not have restricted most, and perhaps not a single one, of the specific weapons he used in Aurora.
Of course, lamenting the fact that being a law-abiding citizen entitles any American, even an addled or homicidal one, to obtain a weapon capable of unleashing mass destruction is an entirely understandable impulse. But does the most ardent advocate of gun control seriously doubt that if assault weapons were banned tomorrow, they would only be pushed underground? Does anyone question that if drugs and prostitution flourish outside the law, a black market on guns would thrive just as easily? Is there any denying a murderous sociopath would find a way to crash that black market, and do some version of what James Holmes did? It’s momentarily satisfying, and perhaps shrewd advocacy on the part of the left, to assume the legal gun culture is the actual culprit for Aurora, but it’s also a stunningly off-base illusion.
There are conservatives who regret that the enthusiasm for Second Amendment rights can spill over into an enchantment with guns in our video game imagery and a dead-eyed numbness around artificially simulated gun violence. Similarly, there are thoughtful liberals who recognize that decades of crusading against firearms, and seeking to demonize them as an element of our social fabric, have boomeranged badly and made even relatively mild restrictions on ammunition or waiting periods to purchase handguns seem like a stalking horse for more draconian regulations. Neither point of view is likely to get the time of day in the hyper-partisan zone of contemporary debate, where concession is a tactical weakness. The main takers to Michael Bloomberg’s invitation for a national forum on gun laws will be the voices whose perspectives are one and the same with the ideological company they keep.
And Aurora will linger, but primarily as one more unspeakable thing beyond the reach of public policy. It’s hardly the wrong intuition. Sometimes, evil really is as isolated as the loners who dispense it, and as bereft of solution as the complex of pathologies that make a James Holmes burst out of his private shadows.