One of the cruel paradoxes of modern American government is that the worst tragedies produce the most moving Presidential rhetoric: Franklin Roosevelt addressing the nation after "a day which will live in infamy," Ronald Reagan mourning the astronauts who "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God" after the Challenger disaster, or George W. Bush, in one of the few inspiring speeches of a rhetorically challenged Presidency, telling Americans that "terrorist attacks can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America." President Obama's speech at the memorial service for the Newtown school shooting victims was no exception to this rule. He eloquently addressed the nation's grief, our sense of frustration, and promised, "I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens ... in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this."
This was the flaw in an otherwise flawless speech, because there is almost nothing political measures can do about tragedies like Newtown. Mass shootings are an example of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "the central conservative truth, that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society." This is not to say that mass shootings are caused by some easily removable defect in our society. Repeating the post-Columbine hysteria over violent video games and movies would be foolish, for although America has exported our video games and movies worldwide, mass shootings are far more common in America than in the other nations where people play Grand Theft Auto and watch Rambo. But while there is no clear cultural cause of mass shootings, so too is there no political solution to them. Neither of the two major policies being advanced, tougher gun control and an increased focus on mental health, would have made a difference to the victims of the Newtown tragedy.
Gun control is ultimately a type of selected prohibition, banning either types of guns, such as semiautomatics, or banning types of people, such as those with any history of mental illness, from owning guns. As a prohibition, gun control is subject to the same weaknesses as America's current prohibition of drugs, and just as sufficiently motivated drug user can get drugs so would a sufficiently motivated shooter be able to get the firearms they want. Perpetrators of mass shooters are not like average murderers, as the vast majority plan on dying at the end of their shooting spree and are killing for killing's sake rather than to achieve another goal. Mass shooters are far closer to terrorists than they are to criminals, and gun control laws will be ineffective at stopping mass shootings just as laws against powerful explosives were ineffective at stopping the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Gun control advocates, most notably the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, point to Australia's 1996 banning of semiautomatic rifles. History makes it clear this will not work. America banned semi-automatic weapons from 1994 to 2004, a ban which specifically included the Bushmaster rifle that was the weapon of choice in the Newtown shooting. During this assault weapons ban, more people would die in mass shootings than had died the previous, ban-free, decade. A more stringent gun control law would have the same effect, and it would be akin to adopting more stringent anti-drug laws to cut down on drug use - although a few casual users might stop their behavior, the dedicated junkies will get drugs regardless of the cost. Mass shooters are among the most dedicated murderers and will get guns regardless of society's efforts to stop them.
Pundits skeptical of gun control are advocating for an increased focus on mental health, arguing for more psychological treatment for people who meet the profile of a mass shooter. This would be effective, unlike gun control, but it would also be impossible. After Columbine, the Secret Service performed a comprehensive study of school shootings and found that "there is no profile of a school shooter." The perpetrator of the Newtown killings had Asperger's Syndrome and was awkward, but so do over a million Americans and no connection between Asperger's and violence exists. People can now see the warning signs for the Newtown shooter, who was apparently isolated from society and may have had a bizarre relationship with his mother. Hindsight however, is always 20/20, and psychological treatment for every awkward teenager with a peculiar familiar relationship would be a Sisyphean task, not to mention one which would heavily intrude on civil liberties.
We are not completely helpless in the face of mass shootings. We can make schools a bit safer, just as the lockdown drills which saved some Newtown children's lives were implemented as a result of Columbine, perhaps some new procedure can be created to make the next mass shooting a bit less deadly. But that is all we can do, and it is folly to think otherwise. We may want to believe in a public policy solution to these senseless slaughters, but there isn't one. The only solution we have is, to quote the President, "Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day."