Eighteen-year-old Youri Felix, who was serving a customer at the Chick-fil-A in the food court of The Mall in Columbia when the shooting started, described the scene there: people running, people scared, then 20 of them crowded into the kitchen area for an hour, until Howard County SWAT officers said they could leave.

"You don't expect that kind of thing to happen to you," he said.

"Really?" I answered, and that's not something I might have interjected during an interview with a witness to a shooting 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

"Really? You don't expect that kind of thing to happen?"

"Well," Felix said, "I guess because it was Columbia — you know, it's such a nice place."

Agreed. Most people around here think first of Baltimore when they think of gun violence. They don't think of Columbia, the suburban haven developer James Rouse 50 years ago declared "the Next America."

But we have had many shootings in nice places — in malls and in schools. Little of the country is unscarred.

By now, every American expects to be somewhere some day when horrible happens, as it did Saturday in Columbia. There are too many guns, and a gun culture that is endemic to American life, and too many people with grievances, fears, extreme anger or untreated mental illnesses.

The expectation that you will be somewhere some day when horrible happens is lodged in the American psyche now. You might not think about it every day, but you have certainly thought about it, forced by the events of the last quarter-century, and maybe longer than that, depending on your age.

We are an exceptional country, all right — we have made it possible for people with steaming grudges or profound mental illness or mere anger-management problems to kill or wound themselves and others easily, taking several victims at a time if they wish. Too many guns, too many disturbed people, and too many opportunities for extravagant displays of violence: How many metal detectors can you have in the Land of the Free?

We also have what appears to be a cycle of emulative behavior: copycat shootings.

Columbia, where the weapon of choice was a shotgun, happened just four months after a man with a shotgun killed 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard.

I hate saying never, I hate throwing in the towel, betraying resignation to a severe problem. But we've reached a critical mass of depravity and firearms, and there's apparently no turning back. We do not seem inclined to do anything about all the guns and the access to them. If the killings in the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., could not move Congress to act, it never will.

And for all the bellyaching in Maryland over the state's attempt to answer the Newtown slaughter with some sensible solutions, the gun worshipers have won the day. They won the day long ago. Guns are here to stay.

"Although easy access to guns is supposed to be an issue of personal freedom, look how it restricts us with metal detectors and fears that going to the movies or to school or to the local mall may be a fatal decision," said Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist in Howard County.

Livingston, a graduate of West Point and former Army Ranger, was trained in medicine at Johns Hopkins. He has written books and spoken about many things, including suicide and grieving. I contacted him Saturday afternoon for commiseration and told him about my sense of resignation — those things that seem to be in the American blood, guns and violence as a solution. Livingston agreed we've been on the wrong track for too long.

"Anyone who believes that they need to go about the world while armed has proven their cowardice," he said. "To have such an idea sanctioned by the state is an endorsement of the fear that we are not safe with each other.

"A larger point, of course, is that we live in a country that has been at war continually since 1941. What does that say about our attitude toward conflict resolution? I think that the message — and liberal fall-back position — that we need 'common-sense gun laws' avoids a more important question: Why does the general public need guns at all? Again, it's an issue of fear and courage."

We have spent billions of dollars in the fight against terrorism — the National Security Agency is maybe 10 miles from the Columbia Mall — when the real terror is right here in our midst, accounting for thousands upon thousands of premature deaths by homicide and suicide, most often impulsive acts made possible by access to guns.

We have only recently come to the big problem of access for mental health services, and there still isn't adequate funding.

You hear people say, "We are a sick country" — it was probably uttered numerous times Saturday as the news spilled out of Columbia — and the statement makes an American self-conscious, even a little angry. But there's truth in it.

We are an exceptional country for too many wrong reasons.


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