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The gun carnage grows. How much do we care?


Is there anything left to be said about guns and violence?

Charles Blow got it right in the Times following the terror in the Washington Navy Yard last week. "Another mass shooting," Blow wrote. "Another round of shock, sadness, and outrage. Another pitched discussion about rights and responsibilities, mental illness and background checks. And then nothing."

And then nothing.

Americans own vastly more guns than the people of any other country – "simply too many guns in this country," Blow wrote, "to ever ensure that some portion will not fall into the hands of the criminally inclined or the violently insane."

And Blow doesn't mention other categories of gun users: the child who gets hold of a parent's gun and fires it by accident or in play, for instance, or the adult who is neither violently insane nor criminally inclined but who – because of anger-management issues or too much alcohol – momentarily loses control and fires his weapon. Or the teenager who ends his personal pain by turning a gun on himself.

Since the Navy Yard shooting, much of the media commentary has focused on mental illness. Certainly this country needs to give much more attention to mental health – not just because a small minority of people afflicted with mental illness become violent, but because too many people suffer from it and we need much more research and much more affordable treatment.

As important as that issue is, though, narrowing the discussion to mental illness diverts our attention from the broader problem. And that is the lack of adequate gun-control laws.

As Blow says, there are simply too many guns in this country. The resulting violence is a terrible public health menace. We know what we should do about it. But we have let gun manufacturers, the NRA, and an exaggerated fear of crime paralyze us into inaction.

In his Times article, Blow notes a troubling change in the United States: the reason people say they own a gun. According to a Pew Research Center poll, Blow says, hunting is no longer the main reason for gun ownership. It's self protection. Many gun owners have convinced themselves that they are not safe in their own homes unless they own a gun – and that if they carry guns wherever they go, they'll be able to step in and prevent tragedies like the ones in Aurora, Colorado. And Newtown, Connecticut. And Washington, DC.

And gun-rights radicals go after legislators who support even the mildest restrictions on gun ownership.

A tragedy like the Washington Navy Yard shootings "ought to be a shock to us all as a nation and as a people," President Obama said in his tribute to the Navy Yard victims on Sunday. "It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation. That's what happened in other countries when they experienced similar tragedies."

But, he said, "sometimes I fear there's a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal."

"No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence – none," said Obama. "Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is 10 times what it is in other developed nations. And there is nothing inevitable about it. It comes about because of decisions we make or fail to make. And it falls upon us to make it different."

So far, though, we haven't developed the will to make it different.

"Our hearts are broken – again," said Obama. "And we care so deeply about these families. But the question is, do we care enough?"

Apparently not. And at this point, I can't imagine that we ever will. If the slaughter of 20 little children in a Connecticut elementary school last year didn't spur us to action, I can't imagine what will.

"Narrowing the discussion to mental illness diverts our attention from the real problem: the lack of adequate gun-control laws."