It has been 46 years — nearly a half-century — since Charles Whitman, a troubled ex-Marine, climbed atop the iconic University of Texas Tower to use it as a staging zone for a shooting spree. He killed 16 people on and around the campus, including his wife and mother.
The nation, while sobered by a second World War and stunned by escalating political turmoil, was still naive in many ways back then — halfway through a violent decade that would rend the political and social fabric. The youthful president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated just three years before. It’s no surprise that Whitman’s massacre horrified Americans from coast to coast.
But in the years since, we’ve adjusted too well to the armed madmen in our midst. A massacre on a college campus barely garners notice outside its immediate locale. Last week, when disgruntled ex-student One Goh allegedly opened fire in a classroom of Oakland’s tiny Oikos University, killing seven and wounding three others, the news drew low-key coverage outside California. After all, it was just the latest of several campus shootings so far this year.
And Whitman seems an amateur by current standards of senseless carnage. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 25 at Virginia Tech. By then, of course, the 1999 Colombine High School massacre, during which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 before committing suicide, had long since faded from the news.
Cho came from an immigrant family, but his massacre suggests how thoroughly American he was. (The same is true of Goh, if he is, as suspected, the perpetrator.) Other countries have generated a few homicidal lunatics, but murderous frenzies by gun-toting maniacs are a particularly American form of madness.
And that madness is stoked and sheltered, nurtured and fed by another kind of crazy — a widespread denial about the price of our love affair with firearms, a disbelief that borders on delusion. Future historians will look back on the nation’s refusal to enact sensible gun regulations with a wry fascination, much as present-day researchers ponder witch-burnings.
We weren’t always so irrational about gun ownership, though firearms were a more utilitarian household item 40 years ago, when more families hunted game for sport — and for the dinner table. In 1968, after nearly a decade of high-profile political assassinations, Congress passed the most stringent firearms regulations since the 1930s, despite the vigorous protests of the gun lobby.
In the intervening years, though, the gun lobby has only grown more powerful — and more radical and more unhinged — pushing past the limits of sanity. Its activists have battled to allow firearms on college campuses, in bars and in churches. Its members have persuaded state legislatures to pass notorious “Stand Your Ground” laws, such as the Florida statute implicated in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.