Editorial: Horror in San Bernardino: The U.S. infatuation with guns is bordering on a society-wide suicidal impulse

A SWAT vehicle carries police officers near the scene of a shooting in San Bernardino on Dec. 2.

A SWAT vehicle carries police officers near the scene of a shooting in San Bernardino on Dec. 2.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Fourteen dead and 17 wounded in San Bernardino, according to the early reports. And that follows just five days after the attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., in which three people died and nine were wounded. A month earlier, nine people were slain at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. In August, eight people were shot dead in a house outside Houston. In June, nine people were gunned down at a prayer meeting in a Charleston, S.C., church. In May, nine people were killed in a shootout among police and bikers in Waco, Texas. And on it goes.

President Obama said after the Planned Parenthood attack that “this is not normal.” But sadly it is becoming altogether too normal in the United States. On Wednesday the president added that the U.S. has a pattern of mass shootings “that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”

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It will be days, most likely, before sufficient details and context are known to understand the atrocious act of violence that occurred Wednesday at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. But it is not too soon to say that the common element in the vast majority of these mass killings — and in the daily parade of violence across the country — is the easy access to firearms. From 1998 to 2013, an average of 11,500 homicides each year were committed with guns in the U.S., according to data compiled by For the last few years, there have been more guns than people in the United States, by several counts.

When these mass murders occur, the instinct is to take a deep dive into the details to learn as much as is possible about who did what and why. That’s important to the investigation of the specific incident, obviously, but it misses the bigger picture, which is that such attacks have become so routine they have almost lost their ability to shock. Phrases such as “active shooter” and “shelter in place” are now part of our lexicon. The Department of Homeland Security has posted a webinar for schools and churches on how to respond to shooters.

Enough. This nation’s infatuation with guns — inflamed by the ludicrous stances of the NRA, and abetted by Congress’ fear of that powerful but irresponsible group — is suicidal. There are too many guns, too easily obtained. Often they are in the hands of those who should not have them at all, such as the mentally ill.

It’s absurd that one of the richest, freest, and most advanced societies in world history endures such a scourge with such equanimity. But there is hope. A Gallup poll in October found that 55% of Americans support stronger gun control measures, and other surveys have found that even a majority of NRA members support mandatory background checks — something the NRA itself has assiduously opposed. There is broad political support for stronger laws to address the nation’s gun addiction, but gun control advocates have so far been unable to counter the money and organizational heft of the NRA. It’s obscene that a single interest group is able to endanger an entire nation’s safety.

The Supreme Court lent credibility to the fully-armed-America crowd in its 2008 Heller decision, which held that the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to bear arms for “traditionally lawful purposes,” such as self-protection in the home. It’s a wrongheaded interpretation of wording that for decades was rightly understood to mean that organized military units, such as the National Guard, have a right to keep and bear arms.

We’re stuck with the Heller ruling for now. But thankfully, the court also said the right to gun ownership was not absolute, and that the nation’s history of gun ownership has also been one of gun regulation. So let’s get at it. There is no need for civilians to own military-style weapons, or magazines that hold large numbers of cartridges that maximize carnage. There is no justification for selling or transferring a firearm to anyone who has not passed a stringent background check, whether it’s a father turning over a gun to a daughter, or a gun shop selling to a stranger. We need to get rid of most concealed-carry laws and make sure there are no guns on school campuses. We need more trigger locks, locked cabinets and gun buybacks.


This crisis in American society must be combated through the ballot box, and through lobbying to loosen the iron grip the NRA holds on Congress and many state legislatures. That is where the pushback against this culture of death needs to occur. And it needs to occur now.

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