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No one can make sense of senseless school shooting

Updated: January 19, 2013 6:12AM

Confronted with a monstrous crime like the Newtown massacre, an enduring and very understandable human reaction is to try to make some sort of sense of it. If we can understand it at some level, we can search for solutions to keep it from ever happening again.

But from where I stand, there is no making sense out of someone going into an elementary school and shooting 6- and 7-year-old kids. All of us can comprehend mental illness. Most of us have experienced rage. But the violence in Sandy Hook Elementary School came from an unfathomably dark place.

Crimes like Newtown invariably bring a call for more gun control. Nearly half the households in America own 200 million guns, according to statistics cited in the news media. (Mine is not one of those households.) The overwhelming majority of legal gun-owning Americans are no threat to anyone.

The Newtown shooter killed 27 people with what’s commonly referred to as an assault-type weapon with a large magazine of bullets. The debate will be centered on efforts — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) says she’ll introduce a bill in January — to ban these military-type weapons and the large magazines. The AR-15 style gun is the most popular rifle in America, according to gun dealers cited by the New York Times. Such guns, I suspect, are fun to shoot at firing ranges. But it’s a mystery to me how the rapid fire enhances the sporting experience of hunting.

Gun-rights advocates note FBI statistics show that most gun murders were committed with handguns — 6,220 handgun homicides out of 8,583 firearm murders last year. Rifles accounted for 323 slayings. The problem is that this argument denies the lethal firepower of assault weapons. The Newtown murderer couldn’t have inflicted such carnage with a standard bolt-action hunting rifle.

Complicating the issue is the contempt urban politicians and major mainstream media have for gun owners. In this liberal view, they are yahoos who, in one famous characterization, “cling to their guns,” who exult in killing Bambi and who indulge in fantasies of warding off black helicopter attacks on liberty by government. Such hostility is why gun owners worry that an assault weapons ban is just the opening salvo of further restrictive laws.

The enormity of the Newtown crime makes this seem like a tipping point in the gun debate, but who knows how this will play out as time passes and Washington returns to grapple with the nation’s fiscal challenges?

An even tougher issue is the one of mental illness. The moral depravity of the shooter has many complaining about cuts in government spending on mental health.

But like gun owners, most people suffering from mental illness are not violent. Initial news accounts of the Newtown killer depict him as withdrawn, seeming more a potential victim than a menace. Suppose expanded mental health programs start identifying people with a propensity for violence. Then what? Do we start electronic brace monitoring or institutionalizing them when they’ve committed no crime? Prevention raises huge civil liberties issues.

An analysis by Mother Jones counted 62 mass murders with firearms over the last 30 years. Sixty were committed by lone gunmen; two involved two shooters. That’s 64 mass murderers in a nation of 315 million people. Criminologist James Allen Fox of Northeastern University, a specialist on mass murder, says such crimes aren’t increasing and writes in USA Today that “if it seems like these dreadful crimes are occurring more frequently, it is really the immediacy and pervasiveness of media coverage that creates the impression.” While their crimes are monstrous, mass killers are rare. But that’s not much solace to grieving and horrified Americans trying to make sense out of Newtown.

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