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"A Tragedy... of Monumental Proportions."

John Nichols

There will be plenty of "rapid responses" to the gun rampage on the Virginia Tech campus, which has claimed the lives of as many as 31 students -- making it the deadliest school shooting incident in the history of the United States.

Do not doubt that the National Rifle Association is preparing its "this-had-nothing-to-do-with-guns" press release. The group has no compunctions about living up to its reputation for being beyond shame -- or education -- when it comes to peddling its spin on days when it would be better to simply remain silent. But the NRA will not be alone in responding in a self-serving manner. Many groups on all sides of issues related to guns and violence in America will be busy making their points, just as many in the media will look for one dimensional "explanations" for what the university's president, Charles Steger, has correctly described as "a tragedy... of monumental proportions."

"The university is shocked and indeed horrified," explained Steger, after it became clear that what had happened on his campus Monday was worse the carnage at Columbine High School in 1999 or at the University of Texas in 1966.

The trouble with shock and horror is that it does not often translate into contemplation, let alone serious reflection on the state of a nation in which such an incident can occur -- and, more troublingly, in which no one can suggest that the killings were unimaginable.

The first question, appropriately, is: Why did this happen?

The second question, equally appropriately, is: What should we do about it?

There is is a simple answer to Question No. 1: America is a violent country.

Unfortunately, simple answers lead to simplistic responses. If America can do nothing about its violent streak, the NRA will argue, it is silly to place limits on gun ownership. Better to arm everyone, the argument goes. Or better to allow the "concealed carry" of weapons. Or, well, you get the point -- anything to avoid taking a piece out of the profits of the corporations that manufacture and sell deadly weapons.

By the same token, the notion that banning those weapons will end the violence has become a a tougher sell. Shocking and horrible rampages occur in countries with stricter gun laws than the U.S. No, they do not happen as frequently. But they do happen.

Conversely, in some countries where gun ownership is relatively high, incidents like at Virginia Tech are far less common.

We ought to wrestle with these contradictions and complexities.

But where to begin?

Here is a modest proposal: Instead of adopting a particular line, rent Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine."

Of course, there are those who will not be able to see beyond their rage at Moore to recognize the value of this particular film.

Moore's 2OO2 film remains the best popular exploration of violence and the gun culture in America. And, despite what the film maker's critics would have you believe, it is a remarkably nuanced assessment of the zeitgeist.

Moore's purpose was to offer an explanation for why the Columbine massacre occurred and to examine the broader question of why the U.S. has higher rates of violent crimes than other developed nations.

Moore certainly does not let apologists for the gun industry off the hook. But he does not stop there. "Bowling for Columbine" explores the role that America's mad foreign policies and obscene expenditures on weapons of mass destruction might play in fostering a culture of violence. Most significantly, Moore takes a serious look at the way in which American media, with its obsessive crime coverage, creates a climate of fear in this country -- a climate that actually ends up encouraging violence.

After the movie came out, Mary Corliss wrote in Film Comment: "Moore makes the mind swim with the atrocities and poignancies on display. 'Bowling for Columbine' should be mandatory viewing."

That was true in 2OO2. It is ever more true today.

John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Copyright © 2007 The Nation

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