EVEN the most hardened experts in the field would have been astounded by the savagery of the Sandy Hook massacre. However, all such slaughter in the US invariably causes foreigners to pronounce knowingly on both their causes and the cures. It's one of America's misfortunes that outsiders – who might have been to New York or Florida for a few days – think that they both understand the country and can solve its problems with simple solutions.
In the case of these increasingly regular massacres, the stock response, especially from liberals, is " gun control". If only it were that simple.
The phenomenon of mass shootings has been intensely examined by vast numbers of academics, as well as by federal bodies like the National Academy of Science and the Department of Justice, not to speak of the FBI, which has an entire division dedicated to it. If the cure were straightforward, surely these studies would by now have found it.
Now personally speaking, I'd certainly prefer that gun control were the answer. But it's not. One- third of all households in the US have guns. In Canada, the figure is one-quarter. But the ratio of mass killings in the two countries, which are culturally almost indistinguishable, in no way reflects the proportions of gun-ownership. Massacres simply don't happen in Canada – well, not yet.
Britain, on the other hand, has gun-control laws that would make any self-respecting Texan turn homicidal with rage. Yet those laws, in a country which prides itself on its relative peacefulness, didn't prevent the Dunblane, Hun-gerford and Cumbrian massacres.
And Norway is surely the social democratic opposite of the US, in the manner in which it both cultivates an intense sense of social harmony, represses self-assertiveness and rigorously enforces its gun-control laws. But that didn't stop Anders Breivik from slaughtering 77 people. Yes, you can blame his xenophobia and his right-wing opinions for the massacre: but lots of people share his attitudes without ever killing anyone. So why was he different?
But Norway is interesting in other ways. It has an average of 10 gun homicides a year. In 2007 there were just two gun killings, but in 2000, there were 17. Why was one year nearly eight times worse than another? Was there a reason? Or are some things simply beyond our understanding? That very lack of a clear cause makes us rather unco-mfortable. So is it not better to pretend we have a solution, such as gun control, than admit ignorance?
Certainly, the mass killing of strangers is partly imitative. After all, the almost inaugural mass shootings of strangers in 1966, by a former US marine from a college-tower in Austin, Texas, occurred just three years after President Kennedy was assassinated – by a former US marine in a high building. Moreover, at the time, the war in Vietnam was both normalising the perceptions of violence, and undermining the taboos on killing.
One recent study of mass killings in the US has even linked their rising trend to the increasing tendency of American courts to favour individual rights over the values of the broader community.
Certainly, the personal freedoms that resulted from the 1960s cultural revolution have produced many of the defining problems of modern society: high levels of divorce, broken families, single-parent homes, alcoholism, depression, homicide, suicide and obesity.
But actually, that doesn't tell us very much. If life was so good before the 1960s, why did so many people want to change it? And since we can't put the genie back in the bottle even if we wanted to, how can we prevent it from inspiring further massacres? Well, we probably can't. We in Ireland, who are so adept at giving advice to Americans at how to control their killing sprees, nonetheless tolerated a 25-year war which killed many more people than all the US massacres put together.
Today, we have the twin epidemics of obesity and suicide, both of which are far more predictable, and therefore more prevent-able, than any apparently random schoolyard massacre, but we seem utterly unable to curtail either.
Moreover, there is that delightful thing, human nature. The term, "running amok", comes from the Malayan word for a homicidal frenzy. "Berserk", with exactly the same meaning, comes from the Norse "berserker". Thus, from the opposing extremes of the world, the Arctic and the Equator, we have two words that precisely define events at Sandy Hook – so clearly, killing sprees are not solely a modern US phenomenon. Once Americans understand that, perhaps they'll be marginally closer to finding a cure. Or maybe not: for until Anders Breivik proved otherwise, hadn't Norway assumed that it had consigned the "berserker" to the history books forever?