How to respond to a senseless horror

Here are some of the questions raised in the wake of the shootings in the Denver area:

✔ Would stronger gun laws have prevented this?

✔  Do violent movies, video games, television, etc., contribute to this sort of wanton violence?

✔  Are there better ways of identifying and dealing with troubled young men (such killers are nearly always male) who display signs of anti-social behavior?

Unfortunately, those are questions raised in 1999 in the wake of the deadly attacks at Columbine High School near Denver.

They are being raised anew after a single shooter entered a theater in Aurora just after midnight Friday morning — during a screening of the new “Batman” movie — tossed tear gas canisters into the audience, then opened fire.

Twelve people were killed and 50 injured. And once again, Americans, and especially Coloradans, struggle to make sense of what occurred and look for ways to prevent future atrocities.

However, it’s not as if we’ve done nothing in the 13 years since Columbine.

Colorado, after much debate and then a statewide vote, passed a law to close the infamous gun-show loophole. That loophole allowed a surrogate acting on behalf of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to buy guns for the two teenagers at a gun show without undergoing a criminal background check. Because of the change in law, that can’t happen in Colorado anymore.

But James Holmes, 24, the suspect in Friday’s rampage, could have purchased his weapons at any store without a problem, since he is of legal age and apparently had only minor traffic offenses on his record.

While some people have already called for tougher gun-control laws as a result of Friday’s murders, it’s not clear exactly what such laws should be or how effective they might be.

In Canada, where gun laws are much more restrictive than the United States, a purported gang member pulled a gun at a Toronto block party Monday and started firing at a suspected rival. He killed two innocent people and injured 23 others.

Furthermore, the police reports from Friday’s killings indicate Holmes used a shotgun, a pistol and an assault rifle to shoot up the theater. A shotgun is generally a hunting gun.Are we going to try to ban traditional hunting weapons in this country? That’s neither politically possible nor constitutionally allowable.

Then there are the psychological questions. Based on early reports, Holmes fits the profile we’ve seen far too frequently for mass killers: a loner and recluse. He recently dropped out of a neuroscience program at the University of Colorado Medical Center campus, and he was not well known by his classmates or his neighbors. He rarely even said, “Hi,” one reported.

So, should every socially inept person be forced into psychotherapy on the assumption that he could become a killer?

Since Columbine, nearly every school district in the country has instituted some program to address bullying. There’s no way of knowing how many potential murders such programs might have prevented. But clearly, some individuals will always remain on the fringes of society, isolated and sometimes vengeful. There is, as yet, no concrete means of identifying all these individuals before they resort to violence.

Finally, there is the social question of violence in the media. Even before Friday’s murders, some critics were panning “The Dark Knight Rises” for its unnecessary violence. And, according to preliminary reports, Holmes may have been dressed much like one of the characters in the film.

Graphic violence in movies seems to have increased since 1999, in everything from gangster movies to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Public debate about acceptable levels of violence is certainly warranted. But, like the Second Amendment, the First Amendment includes protections that cannot be discarded simply because some people don’t like them.

We shouldn’t throw up our hands and do nothing. There are probably policy changes that can be enacted in response to Friday’s horror. But they must be limited in scope.

In a free society, we cannot enact sweeping laws to prevent every possible act of violence. Not much can be done to prevent a determined lunatic from killing people in public places.  Attempting to do so won’t ensure our safety, but it will diminish our liberty.


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