Americans have been killing each other for a long time - thousands upon thousands of men, women and children lying in the cold, cold ground from decades of homicidal violence, the bulk of it inflicted with guns. There are street killings here, bedroom killings there - single victims scattered across the daily news. (I saw my first victim 33 years ago this month, a woman shot to death by her estranged husband as she walked across a parking lot.) And then there are the mass killings, a squall of them this spring, with 57 dead within the last month or so, in a handful of incidents from California to New York.
I hear hardly anyone, anywhere expressing much more than a shrug about it.
This is what Scott Simon of National Public Radio wrote on Twitter the day a gunman in Binghamton, N.Y., fired 98 shots in less than a minute, killing 13 people at an immigration center: "Story like NY shootings is soft spot of jrnlsm. We can & should cover hell out of it. But in the end, what does it mean? What is there to say?"
I can almost understand Mr. Simon's shrug. After the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and again after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, many of us believed the country would turn against guns - assault-style weapons and handguns in particular. But all these years later, we now recognize 280 million as the estimated number of firearms among the 300-plus million inhabitants of the United States. What is there to say? That is a mountain of guns, and it's growing.
Gun sales have been rising again since last fall.
Some say it's because President Barack Obama wants to renew the expired federal ban against military-style assault weapons - the gunman who killed three police officers in Pittsburgh last weekend said as much - so people are stocking up.
But there's more to it. There's a pessimism and cynicism about the kind of society we've become and the uncertain future we face, and that was evident before Mr. Obama took office.
People are stressed about the economy and worried that recovery might be a long way off, and that there may be shortages of food and gasoline, or an increase in crime as the jobless become desperate. So they've purchased guns and ammo, just in case the apocalypse comes before Mr. Obama's economic stimulus package takes effect.
Here's another reason why gun sales are on the rise: Americans are convinced that politicians aren't going to do anything about gun violence. Sixty-five members of his own party in the House of Representatives have urged the president not to resurrect the assault weapons ban that expired under George W. Bush. (One bright spot this year for gun control was in Maryland; the General Assembly authorized the confiscation of firearms from suspected domestic abusers.)
Most of us are also convinced that there are too many angry, ill and violent people in our midst, and that they have easy access to guns. Absent leadership that would promulgate greater control of guns, we fear mass killings will continue. So, the thinking goes, maybe it's best to be prepared - have a gun handy, just in case the madman comes to your office or your kid's school.
It's an epidemic of resignation, and it helps the National Rifle Association.
Once upon a time, the gun lobby would hide from the media after a mass killing at a school or in a workplace. But the guns-at-all-costs crowd claims that mass killings prove we need more Americans trained in the use of firearms and adequately armed. If more people were armed, we'd greatly reduce mass killings, the suggestion being that potential killers could be stopped before they cause much carnage.
We have in our midst millions of one-man militias - trusting no one, cynical about life in a changing society, convinced of the likelihood of more dysfunction and gun violence, and convinced, above all, that few in elected office have the guts to do anything about it.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.