On the same day that President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address -- in the Capitol, where some families victimized by gun violence were invited guests -- two more deadly incidents of firearms mayhem were playing out in California and in nearby Maryland.
On Tuesday, a former Los Angeles police officer who had gone berserk over his 2008 firing apparently met his end in a resort cabin after killing one deputy and wounding another, bringing his toll to four dead. In a suburb of Washington, D.C., a university student set on fire the house he shared with two fellow students. He then shot and killed one of his roommates and seriously wounded the other before killing himself.
The perpetrators had this in common: Both were at least temporarily unbalanced, especially the Maryland man, who, it turns out, may have shown some evidence of paranoia but not enough to have been caught by a background check when he legally purchased his weapons.
Therein rests the futility of the current gun situation. The elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the movie-theater bloodbath in Aurora, Colo., have increased pressure for universal background checks on firearms purchasers. But weeding out who might suddenly explode into deadly violence is nearly impossible without a record or history of mental disturbance. And, with an estimated 300 million-plus guns in circulation, it's even more difficult to limit access to weapons. Almost anyone, record or not, can easily lay hands on a gun.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't adopt efforts to close loopholes in background checks of prospective gun buyers. It's imperative that everyone get vetted, including those who buy at gun shows.
But the president, in his address, realistically regarded any stronger action as improbable in a legislature where most of the members fear for their political lives if they oppose the National Rifle Association, an industry shill that pretends to represent the interests of firearms owners. Obama simply said that all measures, including a ban on assault weapons and expanded magazines, at least should be given a vote.
What a change from a president who wanted nothing to do with the issue in his first four years.
Those attending the speech included the parents of a bright, young Chicago girl who was gratuitously shot down by gang members in a park a few blocks from the president's home. She had taken part in Obama's inaugural parade. Michelle Obama attended her funeral, and her death has heightened demands for anti-gun and anti-gang action in the city.
Perhaps Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's task of dealing with rampant violence would be less onerous if, while serving as White House chief of staff during Obama's first term, he hadn't put politics above the need for action proposed by the Justice Department. Emanuel had blocked Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to take on the NRA early in Obama's first term.
Emanuel also stood in the way of a proposed regulation that would have required gun dealers along the nation's southwest border to report purchases of two or more assault weapons at a time. It was a move to impede the flow of AR-15s, AK-47s and other weapons to Mexico's drug cartels and it was supported strongly by the Mexican government.
With an agenda chock-full of controversial proposals, it remains to be seen how much effort the president will put into solving the firearms issue. Although he doesn't have to run again, members of his party do. Gun control is as bitterly divisive an issue as any the Congress will face before the midterm elections. If the NRA's numbers are accurate, it has gained more than 100,000 new members since the December shootings in Newtown, despite public horror over the murder of 20 children and six staff members. Gun sales, meanwhile, are at record numbers.
With so many guns available, more incidents of mass killing are unavoidable, a federal official predicted. A chilling thought, isn't it?
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)