After Tucson, don't expect sanity to prevail on guns

Predictions: We will do what Clarence Dupnik, the remarkably candid sheriff of Pima County, prescribed — "some soul-searching" — for a few days. There will be calls for toning down the vitriolic political rhetoric and, of course, calls to restore the federal ban on assault weapons. Then the nation will go back to watching football, as if nothing had happened or nothing can be done.

More predictions: Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck will express outrage at comments that they and Sarah Palin in any way inspired the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona; Republicans in Congress will express condolences, then resume trying to undo the health care law that they ridicule as "Obamacare," and no one (not even the Democratic president, who once promised to do so) will lead a new effort on gun control.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone expressed "shock" at the shooting spree in Tucson. After Columbine, Virginia Tech — and, if you really need another example, just last Wednesday at Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb. — why is anyone shocked? Because the lead victim was a member of Congress? Because one gunman was able to kill or wound 19 people in a shopping center parking lot in a matter of seconds?

If you're "shocked," you haven't been paying attention.

The gunman in this case was able to legally purchase, just a couple of weeks ago, a Glock 19 pistol with 33-round magazines, according to federal officials. That's a high-capacity gun, perfect for killing lots of people quickly. The manufacture of such magazines had been banned by federal law, back in the Clinton days. But that law was allowed to expire seven years ago, back in the Bush days. Elected officials of both parties live in fear of the National Rifle Association, which has won the major battles over gun control. As a result, the nation is swimming in guns, and nothing — not even bloodbaths like the one in Tucson — seems to make any difference. We express shock, then do nothing.

"Inevitably, gun control advocates will ask why anyone needs a 30-round magazine," a pro-gun blogger wrote Sunday. "Because the same firepower could save the life of an innocent person armed with a Glock 19 with a 30-round magazine when faced by an assailant."

Of course, you can use that argument ad infinitum, non compos mentis: Everyone should be able to buy a rocket launcher, because you never know when you might come face to face with someone bearing one.

The Tweetosphere has been full of speculation about the motives of the Tucson gunman and how the heated political rhetoric of our times — particularly from the right, in the two years since Barack Obama's inauguration and the rise of the tea party — might have triggered a troubled mind.

But let's be real.

This is exactly what we've seen many times before throughout our long and dark history of political violence: a troubled young man with easy access to guns.

I agree that anti-government and partisan rhetoric is more pointed and hostile than ever, bouncing from cable to radio to Internet and back again. And I'll agree with the good sheriff of Pima County that, with so much mental illness in our midst, angry messages can provoke nuts to violence. But it's the guns that make it possible.

The suspect in the Giffords shooting had posted a list of favorite books on the Internet. Among them was "To Kill a Mockingbird," the story of Atticus Finch, a peaceful and principled lawyer who shows moral courage in defending a black man in small-town Alabama during segregation. When a rabid dog threatens his neighborhood, Finch picks up a rifle and kills the dog with a single shot. "If your father's anything, he's civilized in his heart," Miss Maudie, Finch's neighbor, tells his children. "I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn't shoot till he had to, and he had to today."

Atticus Finch's use of the gun was reasonable — and he had trained himself well enough to protect his family with a single shot. It seems quaint by comparison with life in the United States today: easy access to firepower beyond all reasonable necessity for hunting and self-defense, and so many bloodbaths by now that we've lost our ability to be shocked and to be outraged enough to do anything about it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is