There are many unanswered questions about the man who on Sunday shot and killed at least 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In the days ahead, more facts will emerge. But the most common question — could anything have been done to stop him? — will also be the most difficult to answer, the most hotly debated, and the most irrelevant for public policy.
If the goal is to stop future shooting sprees — and it should be — the right question to ask is simple: What steps can be taken to reduce their likelihood? Nothing can change what happened, and no law can stop every murderous madman. But by examining data and evidence, there are ways to increase the chances that future plots can be foiled, and to mitigate the harm that the successful ones inflict.
That's why Congress banned fully automatic rifles, for instance, and created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Both have saved countless lives.
The trouble is, whenever such a mass shooting occurs, elected officials who fear the gun lobby pretend that nothing more can be done. They offer prayers and platitudes that are quickly forgotten, instead of working to enact policies to help defend a nation that is constantly under attack from its not-so-well-regulated militia.
Americans don't need another debate on "gun control." What's needed is a dispassionate discussion about specific policies that can save lives.
For instance, the Sutherland Springs shooter was reportedly convicted of domestic violence and received a one-year sentence. If true, this should have disqualified him from passing a background check, but it didn't. Discovering what went wrong — and fixing it — can help stop future murderers.
After the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed a law aimed at getting mental health records into the background system. But gaps still exist. Sunday's shooting spree again highlights how a functioning background check system is as much a management issue as a policy one.
Sunday's massacre should also prompt elected officials to contemplate two facts: One, mass shootings are often committed by domestic abusers. And two, in states where background checks are required on all handgun sales, as opposed to states where they are required only at registered gun dealers, 47 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners.
Americans do not elect representatives to pray for them, nor to kneel at the gun lobby's altar. But until voters demand a more active and urgent response from Washington and state capitols, funeral bells from mass killings will continue to ring across the land.
— Bloomberg View