From Virginia Tech to Fort Hood to Aurora to Newtown, with too many tragic stops in between, America again must confront a mass shooting at another seemingly safe place, this time the Navy Yard in Washington, blocks from the U.S. Capitol. If a college campus isn’t safe — or a premier Army base or a suburban movie theater or a Connecticut grade school — how then can we expect safety at the Navy’s Washington hub?
In anger and anguish, we frantically track backward from points known. A 34-year-old man named Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist who spent several years in and around Fort Worth, is identified as the gunman, shot dead himself by first responders.
We discover troubling episodes in his past and increasing mental instability. He shot out the tires of a car that construction workers parked too close to his. He fired a shot, accidentally or on purpose, through his apartment ceiling and frighteningly close to a neighbor who got on his nerves. No arrests, no convictions.
And now, authorities say, the practicing Buddhist obsessed with violent video games opened fire on dozens of people who did no more to offend him than go to work on a Monday morning.
How in the world? How does someone with documented gunfire incidents in Seattle and Fort Worth still manage a concealed handgun permit and security clearance to enter a Navy base?
The signs were there. Why didn’t we see them?
What might we have done if we had?
What’s remarkable — or remarkably frustrating — about modern-day mass shootings in America isn’t the differences but the commonalities. Mental health problems. Access to guns, whether legally or not. Attraction to violent video games. Delusions of grandeur. Inability to move past disappointment or personal slight.
Is there a type for the American mass killer? It would seem so.
The obvious problem is that while all armed, isolated, irritable, mentally ill gamers should be considered capable of such heinous acts, very few — almost none, in fact — commit them. The percentage of Americans in mental health treatment who injure or kill is infinitesimal, as is the proportion of U.S. homicide deaths that result from mass killings.
Still, almost isn’t none. And more families grieve today.
If we care enough to care at all, we must continue searching for answers beyond the talking points that push one side’s politics into the other side’s face. As Americans, we value lives in a free society. Yet we can never stop weighing rights vs. responsibilities, risk vs. restriction.
We must keep searching for answers. When we stop, when we throw up our hands and lock our doors in fear and frustration, we lose ourselves and we lose our society.