America’s elected representatives enjoying America’s pastime on a ball field just across the Potomac from the Capitol: A particularly American form of terror changed that idyll early Wednesday morning into what Senator Rand Paul, who was there, called “basically a killing field.”
A gunman with a rifle fired dozens of rounds at members of Congress and current and former aides, who dove for cover. “He was hunting us,” said Representative Mike Bishop, Republican of Michigan, who was at home plate when the gunman appeared. In all, five victims were hit, including Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority whip, who was in critical condition Wednesday night after surgery on a bullet wound to his hip.
An American would once have been horrified and shocked by such savagery. An American today would be right to be horrified — and not very surprised. This was one of two mass shootings in the United States on Wednesday. At a San Francisco UPS facility, a gunman killed three people and himself.
Not all the details are known yet about what happened in Virginia, but a sickeningly familiar pattern is emerging in the assault: The sniper, James Hodgkinson, who was killed by Capitol Police officers, was surely deranged, and his derangement had found its fuel in politics. Mr. Hodgkinson was a Bernie Sanders supporter and campaign volunteer virulently opposed to President Trump. He posted many anti-Trump messages on social media, including one in March that said “Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.
Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency that they ask of the right.
Was this attack evidence of how readily available guns and ammunition are in the United States? Indisputably. Mr. Hodgkinson, by definition, should not have had a gun, but he was licensed in his home state, Illinois. And in any event it would have been easy for him to acquire a weapon in Virginia, which requires no background checks in private sales, requires no registration for most weapons and has few restrictions on open carry.
The reaction of some was that the only solution is yet more guns. Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who was among those who came under fire on Wednesday, said, “It’s not easy to take when you see people around you being shot and you don’t have a weapon yourself.”
That’s an entirely reasonable reflex. All people in that situation, unarmed and under fire, would long to be able to protect themselves and their friends. Yet consider the society Americans would have to live in — the choices they would all have to make — to enable that kind of defense. Every member of Congress, and every other American of whatever age, would have to go to baseball practice, or to school, or to work, or to the post office, or to the health clinic — or to any of the other places mass shootings now take place — with a gun on their hip. And then, when an attack came and they returned fire, they would probably kill or wound not the assailant but another innocent bystander, as studies have repeatedly shown.
That is the society the gun lobby is working toward. Is it the one Americans want?
President Trump said just the right thing after the attack on Wednesday: “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country. We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace.”
Yet he will not help create that nation if he continues to advocate easy access to lethal weapons.
A version of this editorial appears in print on June 15, 2017, on Page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: America’s Lethal Politics.