"He was diabolical, demonic in this twisted sense that he just -- I mean I -- I think of him almost as a terrorist, right?"
That's how Governor John Hickenlooper described James Holmes, the gunman who shot down dozens at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado earlier this year. Whenever tragedy strikes, as it did Friday in Newtown, this is the reaction we are most compelled to jump to. We feel disgust, and immediately reflect it onto the perpetrator.
But doing so only distorts the true source of these tragedies. By narrowing our anger in on one individual, we isolate the problem in a way that will only perpetuate it.
As it did in Aurora, the discussion surrounding the massacre in Newtown has already focused in on Adam Lanza, the killer who struck down 20 schoolchildren. Several media outlets are reporting on his possible mental disabilities, and some are pointing to his interest in violent video games -- perhaps emblematic of a violent American culture that leads to these attacks.
In reality, questions regarding neither mental health nor sociological trends will answer the pressing question of why these killings continue to happen. Evidence shows that the United States has higher homicide rates by firearm than Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and scores of other countries. Do we suddenly have a mental health crisis, or a violent culture that is so drastically more serious than these countries?
Probably not. There are mentally disabled people everywhere, as there are games like "Grand Theft Auto." When talking about firearms, there is only one noticeable difference that sets the U.S. apart from the rest of the world: No country has more guns than we do.
Altogether, the U.S. is home to 35 to 50 percent of the world's civilian-owned guns, while housing just 5 percent of the world's total population. There are nearly enough guns in the U.S. -- around 300 million -- to arm virtually every man, woman and child.
With methods of killing so readily available, it makes sense that tragedy can strike just about anywhere. No matter what conclusion you come to regarding the motives of an attack, whether it be psychological or cultural, it still stems back to one crucial reality: If guns weren't around, it would not matter.
It's increasingly important, then, that when searching for a solution, we look past the killers and on to the larger problem. As Dave Cullen, the author of "Columbine," wrote in an op-ed, killers "are nothing like a vision of pure evil. They are complicated." Eric Harris, one of the two killers at Columbine, was what we would expect: a "coldblooded psychopath... He had no empathy, no regard for human suffering or even human life." But his accomplice, Dylan Klebold, was quite different: his journal was filled with "drawings of giant fluffy hearts ... with 'I LOVE YOU' stenciled across."
Killers can take many forms. They can be the senseless monster we rush to paint them as, or they can be a loving teenager who simply drowns in a spiral of depression and angst. We can never know for sure who will strike, but we do know one thing: If assault weapons are kept out of their hands, killers will never have a chance to kill.