The only thing more predictable than a mass shooting in America is the alacrity with which the nation’s political class will declare itself shocked and the media class—which has well-rehearsed contingencies for just such occasions—will faithfully transmit and amplify that shock to the nation.
"America leads the world in shocks," noted the late singer Gil Scott-Heron in "We Beg Your Pardon." "Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock."
And so it was that when the news emerged that a lone gunman had sprayed a cinema with gunfire in Aurora, the incident was described as "unimaginable," "incredible" and "unfathomable." However else one would describe events in Colorado in the early hours of that Friday morning, they were hardly unimaginable. Columbine is less than a forty-minute drive away. Just a few days earlier a man shot up a bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, wounding seventeen people. While Aurora’s tragedy was certainly abhorrent, it was by no means aberrant.
For the injured and bereaved such shootings are harrowing and startling. But although the venue, timing and scale of these tragedies may differ along with their dramatic idiosyncrasies—trench coats in Columbine, Batman in Aurora, Tea Party talking points in Tucson—the fact that they will happen is a wretched yet constant feature of American life.
Nor does it take any great powers of analysis to work out why they happen. There are roughly ninety guns for every 100 people in America (by far the highest concentration in the world, with Yemen a distant second at fifty-five), and roughly eighty-five people are killed by guns here every day.
Those two facts are not necessarily causally linked. Incidences of hypothermia and burst water pipes both rise in the winter. They’re connected by the season. But that doesn’t mean people come down with hypothermia because of burst water pipes or pipes burst as a result of people’s deteriorating health. Similarly, access to guns does not, by itself, lead to gun crime. Sweden, Finland and Switzerland are also in the top ten for gun ownership per capita, but none of them have a high rate of gun homicides. So while it is certainly true that more guns increase the possibility of mass shootings (James Holmes bought his arsenal legally—had it been more difficult, his rampage might have been checked), they don’t by themselves increase the likelihood.
What links America’s high concentration of guns and relatively high level of gun deaths are the country’s high levels of inequality, segregation and poverty. For in countries with at least two of those features—South Africa, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, Guatemala—you will find higher levels of gun deaths.