Culture

The Massacre in Oregon

(Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty)

The story coming from Umpqua Community College is by now a familiar one: the socially and romantically frustrated young man, almost certainly mentally disturbed; the channeling of that mental perturbation into various political and ideological enthusiasms, in this case ranging from admiration for Irish Republican Army terrorists to what turned out to be a homicidal antipathy toward Christians; the disorganized family; people familiar with the young man and his family being not entirely surprised by the rampage.

None of this would be complete without politicians rushing to the microphones before the blood has cooled, and here President Barack Obama has obliged, using the event to make another pitch for stricter gun-control policies that would have little or no effect on such events.

The president complained that these episodes, and our national reaction to them, have become “routine.” They are, and they long have been: The worst school massacre in American history was committed at Bath, Mich., in 1927 and involved no firearms; a frustrated politician bombed the school. Go back for decades and you’ll find one or two of these dramatic episodes a year: A junior-high teacher shoots eleven in 1982, a man shoots 41 in a McDonald’s in 1984, a postal worker shoots 21 in 1986, a retired librarian shoots up a supermarket in 1987, etc. (See this timeline for all the cases the media have forgotten.)

#share#There is a national myth that this began with Columbine High School, but that simply is not the case. Nor is this an American phenomenon: In the past several decades there were 18 public mass shootings in the Philippines, 15 in Russia, ten in France, etc. There has been, by some estimates, an upturn in public mass shootings; at the same time, shooting deaths have declined by half in the past 20 years. This is a much safer country than it was in 1994.

Those who share Barack Obama’s worldview and his crassness will take this opportunity to demand closure of the so-called gun-show loophole, which does not, strictly speaking, exist. (People who are not gun dealers are not regulated like gun dealers for the same reason that your uncle who likes to share his hunches about hot stocks is not subject to SEC regulation.) Background-check legislation mainly inconveniences the sort of people who are inclined to comply with background-check legislation. Street criminals have other resources. A CNN analysis of recent mass shootings suggested that in one case — Virginia Tech — a proper background check might have prevented the killer from acquiring a gun. In that case, as in the Charleston shooting (which came after the CNN analysis), the shooters passed background checks because state authorities had defective reporting procedures.

The theatrical shooters who capture the nation’s attention represent a tiny share of those who use firearms to commit violent crimes.

In the vast majority of mass shootings, the firearms were legally acquired; in a very large share of ordinary murders — the much more significant problem — the crimes were committed by people who would not legally be entitled to own guns under current law: In one study of New York City, 90 percent of the murderers had prior criminal records. In neither case is there any evidence that unscreened sales at gun shows are a significant factor.

The theatrical shooters who capture the nation’s attention represent a tiny share of those who use firearms to commit violent crimes, and they are unusual in that most of them who were of legal age would have passed a background check. The people who do most of the nation’s criminal killing are a different story: In most American cities, the great majority of murders are committed by people with prior police backgrounds, often by those who already have been convicted of a criminal offense. It is maddeningly common for murders to be committed by killers with violent gun crimes on their criminal résumés. The streets of American cities are plagued by armed violent criminals because police, prosecutors, and parole officers refuse to do their jobs, or are unable to do their jobs.

It is telling that Barack Obama insists that he wants only “commonsense” gun reform and then cites Australia — where the government confiscated privately owned firearms — as a shining example.

#related#The more complicated question of mental health bears some consideration. In the Umpqua case, the shooter’s mother is said to have told neighbors that her son was dealing with “mental issues,” and in many similar cases the shooters either already were in consultation with mental-health professionals or failed to be so only because of failure by their families and school authorities to take the proper steps. The United States effectively dissolved its public mental-health system in the 1960s and 1970s as the interaction of liberationist radicalism in the psychiatric profession with the narrow self-interest of municipal politicians — who calculate that mental-health patients cast few votes — led to “deinstitutionalization.” The effects of our national unwillingness to act credibly on mental illness can be seen in the occasional dramatic shooting episode, and in the much more quotidian though no less lamentable situation of the mentally ill homeless in our city streets.

The crusade against private gun ownership is, for the Left, a kulturkampf. The sort of people who are likely to own or enjoy firearms are the sort of people who are most intensely detested by the social tendency that produced Barack Obama et al. — atavistic throwbacks and “bitter clingers,” as somebody once put it. The Left’s jihad against hunters, rural people, shooting enthusiasts, and Second Amendment partisans will do effectively nothing to prevent lunatics from shooting up schools or shopping malls. That they would exploit the victims of these awful crimes in the service of what amounts to a very focused form of snobbery is remarkable. Also remarkable is the unwillingness of President Obama and his allies to seriously address the public-policy questions relevant to the case, those being mental health and criminal recidivism of the most violent kind. The rest is simply an unserious cultural self-indulgence.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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