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Editorial: If gun laws are off the table, what is plan B?

An investigator inspected evidence outside of a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., after a gunman killed at least 12 people.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

An investigator inspected evidence outside of a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., after a gunman killed at least 12 people.

The nation, and its political leaders, cannot accept mass shootings as simply a routine part of American life. At least 12 innocent people were killed Friday at a suburban movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the latest in a procession of attacks by disturbed gunmen — a list that includes the 1999 massacre in Columbine, barely a half-hour away from the site of the latest shooting.

Each incident provokes a now-predictable reaction: a round of hand-wringing — followed by nothing. The most obvious preventive measure, tighter gun control laws, has been taken off the table. Both political parties — the Republicans by inclination, the Democrats by calculation — refuse to consider stricter rules. And federal courts have been increasingly unfriendly to existing gun control laws.

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But if political leaders can’t enact common-sense gun limits, they have an obligation to come up with an alternative strategy to prevent such horrifying acts. An answer may lie in more monitoring of ammunition and military equipment purchases, more aggressive mental health intervention, or more sophisticated policing methods. The portrait of the suspect in Friday’s shooting, James Holmes, 24, is still coming into focus. But he was apparently able to acquire a weapon, ammunition, a smoke device, a bulletproof vest, and a gas mask. Law enforcement needs a way to detect these clues, recognize that they add up to a warning sign, and act on them early. The tools authorities have now failed in Connecticut in 2010, when a disgruntled worker opened fire at a beer warehouse, killing nine; failed in Arizona last year, when a deranged man wounded a congresswoman and killed six others; and failed again in Colorado on Friday.

It’s possible to view these episodes as a tragic but unavoidable consequence of Americans’ right to bear arms, just as auto accidents are a price of our freedom of movement. Yet carmakers and regulators work constantly, deploying new technologies and new laws, to limit the latter danger. If tighter gun laws aren’t the answer to mass shootings by deranged individuals, Americans have to take a hard look at the other, ugly possibilities. Frisking everyone who enters a movie theater, or an office park, or anywhere else large numbers of people might gather? Deploying, on domestic soil, the kind of tactics used against Al Qaeda terrorists? Surely the answer isn’t to just tolerate these shootings.

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