We may never know what demons haunted Wade Michael Page’s mind in the minutes, hours and days before he entered the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin, determined to deliver death to those inside it. A former soldier in the United States army, Page has been linked by a civil rights group to white supremacist politics and it is almost certain that Sunday’s massacre was not just a random act of terror but a targeted hate crime as well. One of the oldest Asian communities in North America, the Sikhs faced prejudice and discrimination at the start of the 20th century before finally establishing themselves in different walks of life; in the wake of 9/11, they found themselves targeted by racists who saw in their turbans a resemblance to Osama bin Laden. The sole victim of a hate killing after 9/11 was a Sikh petrol station owner in Mesa, Arizona, and prudence suggests that even though the reason Page chose the gurdwara for his rampage is not yet known, extra security must be provided to Sikh, Muslim and Hindu places of worship across the U.S.
The real lesson from the Oak Creek killings isn’t, however, about the threat to one particular religious community. Even the most hate-filled ideas, after all, cannot kill. The real problem is America’s bizarre relationship with guns. It has long been apparent almost nothing can push the U.S. to clamp down on the criminally-easy access its laws give to guns: not the killings at Oak Creek, not the massacre at the Aurora movie theatre near Denver, not the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, not the Columbine carnage. Wisconsin last year, actually passed a law making it easier for its residents to obtain firearms. In population-adjusted terms, civilians in some parts of the U.S. are more likely to become the victim of a firearms-related murder than their counterparts in war-torn regions like Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2010, the last year for which figures are available, 16.02 of every 100,000 residents of the District of Columbia were killed in a firearms murder; in Afghanistan, U.N. data shows, the civilian fatality rate was 7.90 per 100,000. The classic right-wing argument is that potential victims need guns to protect themselves. Leaving aside the fact that the statistics falsify this claim, it stands on poor rational legs. In the wake of the Denver massacre, both President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney showed a remarkable unwillingness to deal with the issue head-on. Their lack of leadership will, tragically, ensure the deaths of thousands of their fellow Americans year after year.