Gruesome year leaves US at a loss for action | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 03.12.2015
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Gruesome year leaves US at a loss for action

On average, a mass shooting has taken place in America nearly every day this year. Rather than standing as a sign for action, this statistic threatens to become a confirmation of what Americans fear is a new normal.

The fact that the attack in San Bernardino was the deadliest in the United States since 2012 seems exceptional only because it had so much competition.

Just ten days before, for instance, a shootout took place at a New Orleans park where hundreds were watching a music video being filmed. 17 people were injured. Five days later, a gunman stormed a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three before behind apprehended by police.

Leaving 14 dead, Wednesday's attack was the latest in a near-daily string in America of mass shootings - gun attacks in which at least four are injured - the latest, that is, until a woman was killed and three men injured in Georgia later that day. The "Gun Violence Archive" website has counted 310 such incidents in 2015 alone. Including the tens of thousands of incidents with fewer victims, gun violence has taken more than 12,000 lives in the US this year alone.

Yet there has not been a big push recently for substantial policy change seeking to lower these numbers. The spark for reform may be relit in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, but it is more likely a case of too often, too late.

Numbed and Confused

Whether mass shootings are actually on the rise in America is disputed - online databases such as the Gun Violence Archive have only begun appearing within the last few years - but there is no question that the San Bernardino shooting comes at an especially wearisome time in America.

The country was still grappling with the questions posed in the aftermath of the Planned Parenthood shooting, which in turn came at a moment of sorrow, alert and debate in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Running parallel is the intense national conversation on patterns of lethal racial violence used by police.

Adding to a potentially growing numbness to such violence is confusion as to its source. Unlike recent attacks in Europe, more readily connected to terrorism, America's shootings are hard to tie together into a single evil to be combated.

"You have personal motivations, political motivations, religious motivations, criminal motivations, or just no motivations at all," mass shooting researcher Dr. Jeffrey Simon said in an interview with the New York Times. "And the line between them sometimes is very blurred."

A deadly impasse

Guns would then seem to be the only common denominator in the attacks.

But while a vast majority of Americans support stricter gun control, attitudes towards laws limiting the rights of gun owners in general are split strongly down partisan lines. Efforts to enact universal background checks for gun buyers are fiercely opposed by the influential National Rifle Association, which frames such attempts as an infringement over citizen's fundamental right to bear arms.

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Couple die in gun battle after 14 killed

Add to this the growing perception among American citizens, according to the Pew Research Center, that crime is on the rise, as well as the belief held by a majority of Americans that owning a gun would make them safer.

In addition, the various natures of the attacks have often focused attention onto other underlying tensions in American society besides mass violence itself.

Many for instance saw the murder of nine at a Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian Church in June as a manifestation of violent racism that still pervades the country. With the motives of the San Bernardino killers still unknown, and with evidence pointing to a premeditated attack, a looming question is whether it should be seen foremost as an act of terror instead of just another shooting.

"Too many times"

Frustration with the lack of progress has been perhaps made most visible by the overall arc of President Obama's post-shooting statements, which have served as punctuation for so many of these attacks as well as an opening salvo for their ensuing debates.

He solemnly expressed his horror after a number of shootings in the first years of his presidency. After a gunman killed 12 at a movie theater in Colorado in 2012, he commented that: "If there is anything to take away from this tragedy, it is that life is very fragile."

President Obama addresses the San Bernardino shooting

President Obama addresses the San Bernardino shooting

The lesson began to shift later that year after 28 people, mostly children, were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years," he said, holding back tears before demanding stricter gun control. Congress shortly thereafter introduced legislation to ban assault weapons and impose universal background checks on guns buyers, though both measures were defeated.

Obama's tone this year grew frustrated. "I've had to make statements like this too many times," he said after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, this June. Then after a this October: "Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response is routine. We've become numb to this."

In the wake the San Bernardino shootings, his initial reaction sounded almost defeated. "There are steps we can take…to improve the odds that they happen less frequently," he said, his tone as measured as his message.

It is certainly not lost on him that more effective gun control legislation is unlikely in the final year of his presidency. Election season will only further paralyze the partisan divide, while mass shootings show no signs of abating.

The challenge in the meantime is for America to remind itself, over and over, that although these shootings may be expected, they must never be accepted.

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