About 30 years ago as a young reporter in Florida, I was assigned a series on gun control in response to gun violence, which had peaked in the U.S. in 1980.
I began the series with profiles of three gun users, including a woman who had killed her would-be rapist, the owner of a sport shooting club and a convicted murderer on death row at the Florida State Prison in Starke.
Most dramatic was the woman, who was attacked as she entered her apartment after work one evening. She had just moved in and boxes were stacked floor-to-ceiling, nary a broom nor a pot to use in self-defense.
In her panic, she suddenly remembered the small derringer in her purse, which still hung over her shoulder. Already, the man had her pinned against the wall. Reaching into her bag, she grabbed the gun, pressed it to his side and, boom! He died instantly. To my question, she replied: "Hell, yes, I'd do it again in a New York minute."
Or words to that effect.
Most chilling was the murderer, whose name I no longer recall. I do remember that his fingertips were oddly flared and he pressed them together, expanding and contracting his hands like a bellows. No doubt aware that I was nervous, he seemed amused by my questions.
"Sure," he chuckled. "I'm all for gun control. Because that means you won't have a gun. And I will always have a gun."
All of which is to say, the conversation we're having today about how to avert the next act of gun violence is nothing new. Yet, we seem always to fall into the same pro-con template when a fresh shooting occurs.
Before we knew the name of the shooter who killed 12 civilians at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, social media were atwitter with the usual exclamations:
More gun control!
Guns don't kill, people do!
It is easy to become cynical when there's nothing new to say and when, we know, nothing new will come of it. Gun control activists will push harder for tighter restrictions; Second Amendment champions will push back. The National Rifle Association will prevail.
Despite the redundancy of our renditions, there are some differences in gun violence between today and more than three decades ago. Even though firearm deaths have decreased, the recent rash of spree killings -- five incidents this year alone -- justifies a heightened level of concern. Nearly 70 mass shootings have occurred since 1982, according to Mother Jones, 28 of them in just the past seven years. Half of the 12 deadliest mass shootings have occurred since 2007.
Even so, for the sake of perspective, these represent a tiny fraction of total gun deaths. They're more horrific, so we take greater notice. But they represent less than 1 percent of all gun deaths between 1980 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides (19,392 of a total of 31,672 in the U.S. in 2010).
In other words, the reflex to make tougher laws may be missing more important points. This isn't to say we shouldn't consider imposing restrictions on who owns guns, but as my guy in Starke suggested, there's little comfort in forcing law-abiding citizens to submit to tighter controls knowing that criminals will not.
As for the crazies who go on killing sprees, rules rarely apply.
Thus, what we're really fighting about in our national debate about guns is how to stop mentally ill people from wreaking havoc on society. And what are the causes that lead to the breakdowns that lead to the slaughter?
No wonder we'd rather limit magazine sizes.
Much more difficult to process and "fix" are the multitude of factors that lead a sick person to seek company in death. What we know about such people is that they tend to be loners and narcissists (low self-esteem, lacking in empathy, quick to take offense and blame others) who act impulsively and seek attention (and revenge) in dramatic and public ways.
That we have more such characters than we used to -- or that they seem more inclined to act on their impulses -- may have less to do with guns than with underlying cultural causes. No, I'm not singling out video games or family dissolution or any other single factor, though none should be excluded.
If we don't take a serious look at the environment that spawns these individuals, we'll likely be having this same conversation another 30 years from now.