The horrific tragedy at the Navy Yard Monday ought to reignite a national discussion over gun violence in the country, with tragedies now known simply and universally by their venues: Virginia Tech. Tucson. Colorado. Sandy Hook. And now Navy Yard.
But in all likelihood, the rampage will have the same public policy result as earlier mass murders did: a lot of people will get on TV and offer their thoughts and prayers to the victims' families. Some lawmakers and activists will call, yet again, for tighter restrictions on guns. And the effort toward any kind of gun control – even background checks for gun buyers – will be shunted aside or defeated on the floors of the House and Senate, where gun lobbyists have strong allies.
If the most recent shootings show anything, it's how accustomed we have become to guns and the death and damage they cause. The suspect, now dead, had been arrested in two prior shootings, one in Seattle and one in Fort Worth, Texas. In Washington state, the accused killer, Aaron Alexis, had apparently shot out the tires of a construction worker Alexis believed had mocked him the previous day. No charges were filed against him. And in firearms-loving Texas, Alexis was arrested when he fired his gun in his apartment (he said he had been cleaning the gun at the time). The bullet went through his ceiling and the floor of the upstairs apartment, missing his neighbor by a few feet. Alexis was not punished for that act, which, at the very least, was one of gross recklessness.
Washington, D.C. used to be a place where you didn't have to worry so much about security. You could go into almost any public building without even so much as a metal detector screening you first. The district also banned handguns, which, it's true, did not stop gun violence. Since D.C. is bordered by two states, including one (Virginia) where gun laws are quite lax, it wasn't too difficult to acquire a firearm and bring it over the city line. But since the Supreme Court decided the sweeping gun ban was unconstitutional, there's more of a free-for-all attitude with guns. What galls Washingtonians more is that it wasn't locals who wanted the gun ban lifted. It was people who don't even live here.
The acceptance of guns – or the presumption of the presence of guns – leads to other unintended consequences, as well. In New York City this week, a deranged man in Times Square pretended to point a gun (using only his hand) at police. They shot, wounding two bystanders. It's a terrible mistake, and one wonders whether it would have occurred if we were not all so ready to assume everyone has a gun.
Pro-gun activists say the answer is to arm more people – the teachers in schools, regular citizens on the street, security people in commercial places. Does adding more guns work? Not really. A Mother Jones investigation last year showed that in the 62 mass shootings of the previous 30 years, not one had been stopped by an armed civilian. More guns just means more opportunity for another tragedy, even another accident. And what's more troubling still is that we have come to accept it as normal.