Mass shootings: It doesn’t have to be this way

Isabel Espanol for the Boston Globe

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mass shootings, like the horrific killings in California on Wednesday, aren’t inevitable. Other countries generally don’t suffer them. Ours are the consequence of laws — and laws can be changed.

Constitutions, too.

That may seem like an obvious point, but it can’t be forgotten as Republican presidential candidates scramble to change the subject after the massacre, which left 14 dead at an office holiday party in San Bernardino.

The standard response by too many Republicans is to call for greater efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, and leading Republicans trotted out that line again on Wednesday. Yes, improving mental health care is important. But gun-rights defenders are ducking the issue by focusing so exclusively on mental health. Other countries have people with mental illness too. What they do not have are everyday gun massacres.


The four guns recovered from the suspects in Wednesday’s shootings were purchased legally, according to officials. The killers, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had access to a veritable arsenal of deadly weapons, plus body armor. The Los Angeles Times reported they purchased the weapons at Annie’s Get Your Gun, a “family-friendly gun store,” in Corona, Calif.

There is no legitimate civilian use for body armor or assault weapons. Neither should be available to the public.

Investigators are still seeking a motive — were the attacks terrorism, a hate crime, workplace violence by a disgruntled employee? Farook and Malik were killed in a shootout with police soon after the attacks. It’s important for authorities to figure out the details, but with mass killings of this scale, the label applied starts to look like no more than a matter of semantics. Whether the attacks were motivated by bigotry, extremist ideology, or sheer insanity, easy access to deadly weapons made them possible.

Still, the possibility that the attacks were linked to terrorism served to call attention to the fact that even people on the government’s no-fly list can pass background checks to buy guns in the United States. The very same politicians who beat their chests about how tough they are on terrorism won’t pass laws to prevent terrorists from getting weapons.


That’s got to change. It was just a few weeks ago that many politicians, including Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, sought to demonstrate how much they care about public safety by rejecting Syrian refugees. How about if he joins the fight against an actual security threat, by championing the Beacon Hill proposal, from state Representative Lori Ehrlich, to prevent gun sales to people on the no-fly list?

Presidential candidates need to step up too. Will any of the Republicans, who seemingly want Americans to be scared to death of refugees and Mexicans, address the nation’s real threats? Will any of the Democrats, who pay lip service to gun control but then do nothing about it when they control Congress, pledge to make it a top priority?

On the floor of the Senate Thursday, one of California’s senators, Barbara Boxer, made an urgent appeal for action. “Once you know something is happening and you can do something about it and you don’t do something about it, you’re liable. Maybe not in a legal sense,” she said. “In the moral sense.”

Indeed, lawmakers can and must do something to rein in gun violence. But if repeated attacks like this won’t change politicians’ minds, the responsibility will shift to voters to hold them accountable.