Months before a deranged, bigoted gunman massacred 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket, months before a troubled young man took the lives of 22 people — including 20 children — at a Texas elementary school, columnist Dan Henninger of The Wall Street Journal observed:
“A question for our time in the United States is: How have so many individuals broken free of moorings that once stopped them from an uncontrollable drift into senseless violence and mindless behavior?”
There are many questions yet unanswered about Tuesday’s horrific shooting in Uvalde, Texas. But none is more important than Mr. Henninger’s sage query about the “persistent erosion of behavioral norms” that has become commonplace in 21st century America.
We can talk about guns. But that debate has, over the years, yielded little of value as both sides retreat to their corners and lob figurative grenades at the other in an effort to rouse their partisans. It’s true that levels of gun violence in the United States dwarf those in most industrialized nations, and this certainly has to do with the availability of guns in this country. But there are limits — constitutional, practical — to what politicians can do to restrict access to weapons. The idea that we can, and should, banish guns is Utopian foolishness and ignores the value of firearms for self-protection and combating violence.
But there is widespread public agreement that we must redouble our efforts to keep guns out of the hands of sociopaths who have concluded that they will not be restrained by the guardrails that define civilized behavior. In doing so, we must look at which laws have actually worked and which have failed to deter the criminal class or the unspeakably unhinged.
We must also take advantage of the explosion of analytics. “This is planned violence,” said Mark Follman, national affairs editor of Mother Jones and author of a book on mass shootings. “There is, in every one of these cases, always a trail of behavioral warning signs.” An increased reliance on“behavioral threat assessment” teams to identify potential dangers makes sense.
We will never stamp out evil, but this nation can’t simply resign itself to numbly accepting weekly mass murders at schools, shopping centers and bars. Which brings us back to Mr. Henninger’s point: What has so infected our culture in recent decades to explain the erosion of traditional family and community bonds and led so many people to believe that disrespectful, unlawful or aberrant acts are acceptable in response to anger or disappointment? “Justifications for convention-smashing behavior are always at the ready today,” Mr. Henninger noted, “but the cumulative corrosion of standards … is now taking a toll on Americans’ presumptions about the internal stability of their country.”
We can do better. And we must.