Not so young, not so many – until Friday

The News TribuneDecember 16, 2012 

Sandy Hook is the worst.

It exceeds in horror even the rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007, which had a higher body count: 32, mostly college students. There’s something far more appalling about the slaughter of small children – 20 in this case – who have no way to defend themselves, no idea of what is happening and no capacity to plan an escape.

The United States has suffered a crescendo of mass shootings in recent years – even as the nation’s overall murder rate has been falling.

It’s gotten so only spectacular bloodbaths – such as the 1999 killings at Columbine High School and July’s shooting spree at a theater in Aurora, Colo. – make much of an impression on the national consciousness. Lesser outbreaks of multiple murder, like Tuesday’s shootings at a Portland mall, might once have been shocking; now they are almost background noise.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Friday overshadows everything that preceded it: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Fort Hood and all the rest.

The depravity is unfathomable. What kind of human being pursues terrified 6-year-olds around a classroom, methodically lining them up in his sights and pulling the trigger?

Atrocities of this magnitude happen in war zones and during campaigns of ethnic cleansing – always somewhere else, right? The United States has had its share of serial killers, some – like John Wayne Gacy – who preyed on the young. But until Friday, America had never seen a berserker kill so many small children in one place at one time.

What could have prevented this?

Sandy Hook Elementary reportedly had a good security system; its doors automatically locked at 9:30 a.m. But no school is a bank vault; the gunman reportedly forced his way in.

Tighter restrictions on guns? Possibly.

The gunman reportedly brought three semiautomatic guns into the school. These are the weapons of choice for mass killers, who sometimes wear military gear and in some cases may be acting out violent video-game imagery.

Categorically banning semiautomatic firearms is a nonstarter in the United States – culturally, politically and probably constitutionally. To prevent mass murders, restrictions must be precisely targeted at people most likely to carry them out: A well-established profile points at youngish, mentally disturbed men with some record of violence and a history of drug abuse.

But in this case, the firearms appear to have been legally purchased by the suspect’s mother (whom he reportedly killed) under Connecticut’s tight gun restrictions. Congress simply isn’t going to pass a law that would prevent a woman from keeping a firearm in her home to defend herself.

There’s not always a policy solution for the dark side of human nature. Sometimes every conceivable safeguard isn’t enough to stop evil. And when kindergartners are gunned down in cold blood, the issue is exactly that: evil.

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