No easy answers to shooting

September 24, 2013 

In all likelihood the nation will grieve about those killed in the recent shooting rampage, discuss the motivation of the shooter, consider possible causes and remedies. And then this massacre will be added to the too-long list of others as we once again throw up our hands in frustrated resignation, dreading the next one.

In a sense, the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard teaches us little about the phenomenon of mass shootings. It offers us few useful insights into how to prevent future massacres.

Yes, security at the Navy Yard was lax. Yes, it is difficult to comprehend how someone with the documented mental problems of Aaron Alexis, the 34-year-old gunman, still had a security clearance to enter the facility.

And, of course, we are left to wonder how he passed a background check to purchase a gun.

Perhaps those who knew him should have anticipated the psychotic breakdown that fueled the rampage. And clearly the Navy Yard should have been more careful about who it admitted.

But what lessons can we draw from this tragedy that can help us predict and prevent another mass shooting? The nation is home to thousands of isolated loners with mental problems similar to those Alexis suffered, but few will erupt in murderous rage.

While better security might have prevented Alexis from entering the Navy Yard, he could have chosen numerous other public venues to vent his wrath.

We might have assumed that Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., would have been safe havens – before they, too, were invaded by gunmen.

As always, we focus on access to guns. Alexis, despite his mental problems, legally acquired a shotgun after passing a background check. He reportedly used the shotgun to shoot a guard, from whom he took a handgun, which he later used along with the shotgun to kill 13 and wound numerous others.

The gun lobby will insist that no current laws could have prevented Alexis from buying the shotgun and that new restrictions won’t help. Gun control advocates will say that something has to be done, including more and better background checks, and restrictions on assault-style weapons.

The arguments are old and constantly rehashed.

But one overriding question begs an answer: Why does it happen here?

Why is this country the site of so many mass killings? What makes us different? What is it about our laws, our culture, our history that spawns mass murderers?

And what can we do to stop them? Unfortunately, this latest shooting offers few new clues to that question.

Nonetheless, it’s a question we have to keep asking.

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