Waiting for the War on Guns

Laws have been made to end drug trade and terrorism. So why don't mass shootings inspire change?

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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The Tuscon, Ariz., mass shooting in January 2011 — which killed six and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 11 others severely injured — was committed by Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old white male who had a similar profile to Holmes: quiet, reserved and seemingly apolitical.

As in the Holmes case, media reports immediately focused on whether mental illness, depression and isolation were the root cause. There seems to be a desire to humanize white perpetrators in a wildly different way from the manner in which suspected Muslim terrorists are automatically demonized, and African-American males — even when innocent — are unjustly criminalized. Is the mitigating factor in crime, punishment and perception always race?

Far too many similar cases exist. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the 18- and 17-year-old killers in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, were also young, disaffected white males — immediately characterized as outcasts and victims of bullying. Entries in Harris’ diary would later reveal he aspired to hijack planes and crash them into New York City — the same kind of destructive designs that would bring down the World Trade Center just two years later.

Other infamous characters, Timothy McVeigh and his two co-conspirators — all white males — orchestrated the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which was the deadliest domestic terrorist attack before 9/11, claiming 168 lives and injuring more than 800. McVeigh was dismissed as an anomaly and a scientific madman.

There are infamous mass shooters, of course, who are not white, the most recent examples being the 1993 Long Island Railroad shooter Colin Ferguson, a man of Jamaican descent who murdered six train passengers, and the Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad, an African-American, Louisiana-born Army veteran. Each case presents an instance — as in other mass shootings — in which a mentally unstable person has access to guns and does irreparable harm. But both Ferguson and Muhammad lived in an America where they were far more likely to be policed for potential crime simply by virtue of their black skin. And in both cases, handguns or rifles were used. Neither had stockpiled a cadre of military-style weapons. If they had — as did their white counterpart in the gun-liberal state of Colorado — one can imagine that laws would have been amended.