When Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik gunned down 31 people, killing 14 of them, in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday they took the year's grisly toll of more-than-one-a-day US mass shooting incidents – killings or wounding of four or more at a time – to 354, with 462 dead. It was the worst mass shooting since the assault on an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, nearly three years ago when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults and then himself, and came just days after a massacre at an abortion clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where three lives were taken and nine people wounded.
President Barack Obama, who has been more forthright on the issue in recent months and acknowledges that it represents the key failure of his presidency, again lamented an epidemic of gun violence that he said rightly "has no parallel anywhere else in the world". He repeated in vain his call for Congress to pass "commonsense gun safety laws" including tougher background checks for firearm sales.
And the reality is that despite resolute political opposition to any form of control, a poll this year found that even among gun owners, 85 per cent approve of universal background checks. Research from Harvard suggests that about 40 per cent of guns in the US are acquired without a background check, while it is legal even for people on the terrorism watch list to buy guns – more than 2,000 terrorism suspects purchased guns in the US between 2004 and 2014.
Public attitudes in a land awash with 300 million guns are changing, however, although the National Rifle Association maintains its death-like grip on the political class. But, for all too many, the response to another mass killing is simply to go out and buy more guns. In the wake of the Colorado killings last week, retailers reported record-breaking Black Friday gun sales – the FBI was left processing 185,345 firearm background checks, more than ever before.
Mass shootings represent only a small subset of the routine of gun violence – on Wednesday alone guns, averages suggest, probably took another 88 lives, while in the last four years, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof notes, the epidemic, including suicides and accidents, has claimed more US lives than the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq put together.
Of course it’s clear that, even with gun checks, even with measures to restrict availability among criminals and the mentally disturbed, with laws about locking guns away from children, curbs on high-lethality automatic weapons .... the police could not prevent every killing, and particularly those like the currently inexplicable San Bernardino massacre. “But we’re not even trying,” Kristof points out. And the rest of the world looks on with utter bewilderment.