Brand diversification is part of the American Way—and so now we can add, to all our other smaller-portion spinoffs, a new American phenomenon: the mini-massacre, a gun killing that is horrific in its shock and numerous in its casualties but not sufficiently large enough in the number of dead to really register as a major event in the way that Newtown and Charleston, and, oh yes, Fort Hood, and, right, Aurora and Virginia Tech all did. These mini-massacres, which now occur regularly, are, indeed, perhaps more like what’s called, in branding, a line extension—the same product in a slightly different form. The gun massacre in Louisiana yesterday was one of those; a man with a handgun that was designed only to kill, killing helpless people in a movie theatre. Once again, it seems essential to give the young victims faces—Mayci Breaux, who was just twenty-one, and Jillian Johnson, who was thirty-three. Once more, one has the heart-breaking duty of imagining them dead on a night when they thought only of a small and silly pleasure.
Of course, we hear, If only they had been heavily armed, with loaded guns not just in their purses, but ready in their laps, they all could have fired back at the assailant, aiming and shooting their guns, too, in that dark, crowded space. That would have saved them. Or, perhaps, an armed guard with infrared goggles and an assault rifle should be posted in every screening room in every American multiplex. Of such things American civilization might yet be made. “Whenever we hear about these senseless acts of violence, it makes us both furious and sad,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said. Furious, sad, and, apparently, determined to do absolutely nothing to stop the next gun massacre from happening—indeed, determined to do everything possible to stop anyone from doing anything about it at all.
Once again, someone for whom possessing a semi-automatic .40-calibre handgun ought to have been made hugely difficult was able to get his hands on one, with results we know and that, given his history, might have been predictable. Within hours of the killings, we found out that the killer was, well, not the first man you’d want in line for a weapon. As recently as 2008, the AP reports, the killer’s family petitioned a court to have him involuntarily committed “because he was a danger to himself and others.” Apparently, his wife took the guns out of their home when he “exhibited extreme erratic behavior” and made “disturbing statements.” Just the man who ought to have a semi-automatic pistol—the simple kind of gun-control laws that exist in almost every other developed country, which make it hard to get your hands on a gun, particularly when you have any history of mental illness, would likely have kept those two young people alive.
This genuinely insane circumstance—an ongoing national tragedy with an inarguably simple and available solution—once seemed to have merely depressed President Obama. But now, in this oddly rich harvest time of his Presidency, it seems to have properly outraged him, too. “It ought to obsess us,” he said about American gun violence after the Navy Yard gun massacre—remember that one?—“It ought to lead to some form of transformation.” On Thursday, in an interview with the BBC, the President stated, eloquently and succinctly, the basic circumstance of American case: “The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws. Even in the face of repeated mass killings.” He also pointed out that, in the years since the September 11th attacks, fewer than a hundred Americans have been killed by terrorism, and tens of thousands by gun violence. (One can only imagine what laws we would have instated had organized terrorists instead of random terror killed so many.) Indeed, Obama spoke to the BBC a few hours before the Louisiana shooting. Think of it: even as he was articulating his frustration at our collective failure to create common-sense gun laws to stop mass killings, another one was about to happen. Speak of gun deaths in the United States, and you are likely to anticipate them.
Change, as I’ve written, comes in many kinds. The one thing we know for certain is that consciousness has to change before laws do. When one sees, with each new senseless gun massacre, the President himself passing from gravity to piety to heartbreak to something more like quiet smoldering indignation, then one might take heart even after one’s own soul drops at the latest news of a mini-massacre. The BBC has prepared an instructive cumulative video of the President’s response to successive gun massacres. During his Presidency, he’s gone from a kind of rote acknowledgment of the issue to a deeply felt recognition of its centrality, if only because it represents not a problem that is insoluble in its nature but something stupidly simple and easy to fix. In any sane polity, gun killings would be a horror, not a habitual event. Seeing the President’s metamorphosis suggests that, as another old song had it, a change is going to come.