This week’s horrific carnage on the campus of Virginia Tech has rekindled the perennial American debate on gun laws. The apparent shooter, a troubled youth, was able to walk into a store in Virginia and purchase a handgun over the counter, no questions asked. The same thing is possible in dozens of other states around the country. Local gun laws can barely make a dent when citizens are free to drive to the next state.

Conservatives argue with a straight face, as many did this week, that citizens would be safer if more of them were armed, so that a lone shooter could be cut down at once in a hail of righteous gunfire. The other half of America — and much of the world — looks on in helpless horror.

We know that guns can be used only if they’re available. In America, they’re household appliances. Our homicide rate is eight times the average rate for the rest of the industrialized world. Two-thirds of our homicides are shootings. Mexico estimates that 80% of the guns in criminal hands there were purchased legally in the United States.

We also know that nothing is likely to change soon, and not only because of the gun lobby. More than one Democrat has lost a statewide election because a gun-control measure on the ballot brought out yahoos who’d never voted before but wanted to defend their weapons. Indeed, one of the secrets of the Democrats’ success last November was the recruitment of socially conservative candidates, with an accent on gun-toters. Americans, it seems, love their guns, and are willing to pay the price, even as we wipe away our tears.

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