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A semiautomatic weapon is a magic wand


THE usual imperative of those who would contemplate an event like Tuesday's Long Island Rail Road massacre is to "make sense" of it. While the wish is reasonable, no more sense can be made of such a thing than of a typhoon or cyclone.

Forget the gunman's declared motive of racial hatred: When someone with a semiautomatic weapon starts perforating citizens en masse, the question of motive evaporates.

Whether the action is purported to have arisen from race or religion or ball scores or indigestion or orders from beyond, the gunman's explanations are as immaterial as anybody else's. To account in this way for an act of murderous lunacy is to accord it a place in the rational order, as if it merely represented the top step of an ordinary staircase of emotions.

In fact, there is only this: rage and despair and a weapon more efficient than the brain of anybody pulling the trigger.

Running amok is nothing new, of course: There have always been illuminated types who are suddenly seized with bloodlust. But their ranks have been swelled with the increasing sophistication of weaponry.

We remember such mass murderers as Howard Unruh in Camden, N.J., in 1949 and Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas in 1966 because they were relatively exceptional.

The clumsy weapons of their times required sharpshooters for such jobs, as well as the time and opportunity to reload. Today's arsenal demands no particular skill or vantage or even much of an impetus. Any nitwit can do it, erasing people like zapping TV channels with a remote.

The lack of difficulty suggests a lack of consequences, which is one reason there are so many killings among teen-agers.

Sociopaths are by definition not much concerned with consequences. For them a semiautomatic weapon is a magic wand: There is barely a breath between the desire and the cataclysmic effect.

Whether there are more sociopaths at large now than before is a matter I am not qualified to address, but there is certainly no keeping mass killings straight anymore -- was that fast-food restaurant butchery in Texas or San Diego, or both?

In a way, this confusion illustrates how we may all be acquiring a tinge of the pathological. Tragedies merge, disasters run together, victims and perpetrators alike become undifferentiated statistics. The sadness, horror and fear that such events inspire are succeeded by anger, then cynicism, then a protective tunnel vision.

Soon enough, a nebulous Them manifests itself in the imagination, standing for all the threats, nameable and unnameable, out there in the world, and from there it is not much of a stretch to perceiving most of the world as a threat.

At that point, perhaps, it is only natural that the average person seeks to acquire a gun.

This is not to say that the purchase of a gun is exclusively spurred by paranoia, however. There is something quixotic, even innocent, about it.

People imagine themselves getting the drop on the bad guy, confronting the craven coward in mid-swagger. They will make the villains run in fear from an armed and righteous citizenry, and order will again prevail.

Yesterday morning, when I ran my dog in the park, one of the usual crowd there announced that her last doubt about gun ownership had just been eliminated. I immediately knew that all over town others were similarly deciding to go buy themselves an iron. In fact, they will first see another's gun when its barrel is pointed straight at them, their own gun undrawable even if it were reachable. Or maybe their gun will be stolen, which just about guarantees it will become a murder weapon. Or maybe they will ice some pathetic walk-on who misheard their question. Or maybe they will forget the thing is loaded and decide to clean it or juggle it or put it up their nose.

The odds of a firearm being defensively useful for anybody but a shepherd or a bodega owner must resemble those for winning the lottery, and when it comes to protection against mass murderers, wolfsbane or a hand mirror would probably be just as effective.

There is no defense against freakish tragedy, only the kind of internal preparation -- equal parts fatalism, imagination, humor and an understanding of probability -- available to those who dwell in tornado country or on windward islands.

Humans who live close to the soil have always known that every day is a gamble.

What we call progress may have changed the nature of the game, but not its outcome.

Luc Sante is author of "Evidence" and "Low Life."

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