Attending a midnight opening of a blockbuster motion picture has become a pleasant ritual for millions of Americans. Most are unlikely to view the experience so positively after a heavily armed gunman wreaked havoc on a crowd packed into an Aurora, Colo., theater to see "Dark Knight Rises," the latest installment in the "Batman" trilogy. Before the early Friday rampage was over, 12 people were dead, more than 50 injured and the innocent joy of going to the movies shattered.
Whatever prompted one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history, there can be no rational explanation for it.
The suspect gunman, who tossed a gas canister into the movie auditorium and then methodically began shooting into the crowd, has been identified by federal law enforcement officials as James Holmes, a graduate student who apparently was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado-Denver at time of the attack. One federal official said Holmes, who apparently was wearing a gas mask during the attack, carried an assault rifle, a shotgun and two pistols. There was no word, as of Friday afternoon, about a possible motive or whether the guns had been purchased legally.
The investigation of Holmes is on-going. FBI agents and police were at Holmes' apartment on Friday looking for clues. Their task was complicated by flammable and explosive booby-traps, presumably armed by Holmes. Their presence suggests the possibility of premeditation on the part of the alleged gunman, who obviously believed that his dwelling would become a place of interest.
Worst since 2009
The shooting was the worst in the United States since the 2009 attack at a Texas military base when an Army psychiatrist opened fire, killing 13 and wounding more than two dozen. Friday's spree was the worst in Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when two students killed 12 and wounded 26 others before taking their own lives. Indeed, the mall where the Friday shootings occurred is not immune to violence. A woman was killed and two others were wounded inside it in 2005.
Emergency medical and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies reacted promptly and efficiently to reports of the early morning shooting. Those wounded were quickly transported to hospitals for treatment and the surrounding area searched for possible accomplices or dangerous devices that may have been left behind.
Words of consolation came from members of the alleged shooter's family - reports indicate they were as stunned by the event as everyone else - from President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and from Americans from all walks of life. Local residents provided comfort and assistance to those whose family members, friends and neighbors were killed or wounded, or caught up in an unimaginable event beyond their control. It is a welcome American response - a gathering and sharing that eases the pain of the inexplicable, even if it can not explain it.
There is a chilling familiarity in the Aurora movie-house massacre with other, similarly horrific shootings - the Columbine and Fort Hood massacres, the shooting spree that crippled Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed others, the massive tragedy at Virginia Tech. In each instance, the attacker or attackers employed readily available guns to maximize death and injury.
Unfortunately, talk about the ubiquity of guns and the role they play in U.S. violence is muted by Americans' unwillingness to challenge false beliefs about the right to own and use guns, and by the highly effective politicking and expansive largesse of the National Rifle Association, perhaps the most powerful and certainly the most influential lobby in the nation.
Long-term objective of NRA
There will be some tut-tutting about the disturbing role guns play in contemporary U.S. life. Yet if the past is any predictor, that sensible conversation will be drowned out by the shrill shouts of those who believe that any talk that ties the ubiquity of guns, particularly handguns, to violence like that in Aurora is an attack on their personal right to own guns. It's the same crowd that tells the nation that the best way to guarantee public safety is to allow everyone to own guns. That's the NRA's long-term objective, and the organization is succeeding in reaching its goal. NRA-approved laws that expand gun-toting rights already have passed in many states and are pending in others.
As long as the national discussion about guns is dominated by the NRA, any talk about rational gun control that reconciles constitutional mandates with the need for public safety appears doomed. Much of the U.S. public now favors rational regulation of firearms, and the U.S. Supreme Court has provided guidance in that area. Even so, politicians at all levels refuse to heed the call to act responsibly. There's no way to prove beyond doubt that stronger gun laws would have prevented the Aurora and similar shootings, but it is almost a certainty that more stringent controls would reduce the amount of gunplay and the thousands of U.S. deaths attributed to it annually.
Until elected officials summon the guts to address the issue of guns and gun violence directly and without interference from powerful lobbyists, the toll of dead and wounded that arises from unfettered access to guns is likely to grow. No one knows where the next act of violence perpetrated by someone armed with automatic and high-powered weaponry will take place. Indeed, we can't protect ourselves and others from every possibility of violence.
Stricter gun controls probably would make such incidents less deadly, though. Lacking such controls or the will to install them, all the nation can do at times like this is mourn and pray for the dead and wounded, and hope that such a tragedy is not repeated soon.