Sunday's mass shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee that left six people dead and three wounded understandably horrifies Americans of all backgrounds. It comes just a fortnight after a ghastly movie-theater shooting spree in Colorado which left 12 dead and 58 wounded. Unfortunately, such incidents are not an aberration in the United States. The place, the toll and the impetus for the attacks might change, but there is a constant: Guns play a central role in the violence.
Sunday's incident was no different than others. The alleged gunman was armed, officials say, with a 9 mm handgun and multiple magazines of ammunition. He has been identified as 40-year-old U.S. Army veteran who once led a white supremacist heavy metal band. On Monday, he was called a "frustrated neo-Nazi" by a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the nonprofit civil rights organization that tracks hate groups. The combustible combination of an easily obtained gun and racial hatred undoubtedly contributed directly to Sunday's tragedy.
Not much can be done directly about the way an individual thinks about ethnic and religious groups unless that person publicly acts on those beliefs. Something can be done, however, about the ready availability of guns and ammunition that makes many irrational acts based on those beliefs so deadly. That would require passage of sensible gun control laws, but that is unlikely at present. The political courage required to do so is lacking.
Fair and equitable control of gun sales is possible. The U.S. Supreme Court has said so in a ruling that upholds Second Amendment rights, but says that states have a right to regulate gun sales and related purchases. Few states, however, have gone down that path. Legislators are afraid to challenge the National Rifle Association propaganda that regulation of gun sales is an attack on the personal right to own guns.
The result is predictable. Gun-related deaths here and across the country continue to grow, especially when hatemongers with easy access to weapons act on their views. That seems to be the case in Wisconsin, even if it is possible that the event is a horrible case of mistaken identity.
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that promotes equality for all. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair and men often cover their heads with turbans, which are considered sacred. As a result, Sikhs frequently are mistaken for Muslims or Arabs and have inadvertently become targets of anti-Muslim hatred in this country since 9-11.
Days after the terror attacks, for example, a Sikh man was killed in Arizona. The man convicted of the killing had told his wife that "all Arabs should be shot."
Such talk is irrational, of course, but nevertheless can lead to deadly consequences. Indeed, given the lack of evidence that white supremacists like Sunday's alleged gunman hated Sikhs, some officials now believe that the shooter mistook Sikhs for Muslims.
Legislation can't fully protect us from such hatred and gunplay, but it would reduce the toll tied to easy access to weapons, large capacity magazines, assault rifles and unchecked accumulation of guns and ammunition. Until political leaders find the wisdom and courage to enact strict gun controls, tragedies such as Sunday's will remain the shame of the nation.