In the wake of past mass shootings, when the "national conversation" has focused exclusively on guns, I have argued that our appallingly inadequate mental health system was a better subject of reform. At least half of the shooters in the rampage killings that are ripping our hearts out are young men with serious mental illnesses, and our system has neither the legal nor the financial resources to get them the treatment and/or restraint that they, and we, desperately need.This time, mental health reform has received passing mention, along with the usual pleas for gun control, better security at schools, and so forth.
Some control of ammunition might be useful at the margins (though the Connecticut killer seems to have obtained his deadly arsenal from his mother). As for security, some have argued that placing armed officials in schools would profoundly alter the tenor of American life. I can report that in Fairfax County, Va., where my children attend public schools, every middle and high school has an armed police officer on duty every day. It doesn't feel like a prison camp. It's somewhat reassuring.
Modesty is called for in judging what causes these mass killings in America and elsewhere (Australia, Norway and China have also experienced them). Guns have always been readily available in this country, yet these random massacres in classrooms or malls or movie theaters full of innocent strangers are new. Is it the dissolution of families? The decline of religious faith? The fading of civil institutions, such as churches and community groups? Is popular culture to blame? Is it the wall-to-wall coverage?
It's worth considering all of the above. These are the acts of profoundly disturbed or insane individuals, yes, but culture affects the way even the mentally unbalanced behave. The rate of violent crime has been declining for more than a decade, which suggests that we are not in grip of mass depravity. But if we believe great works have the capacity to ennoble, we must concede that vile works can corrupt.
Mass shooting has become an American form of psychosis -- with each new horror inviting an even more grotesque imitator.