In 1984 in San Diego, after what was then the worst mass shooting in modern American history, a colleague and I tracked down the widow of the deranged killer, James Huberty.
"Society has had their chance. Now I'm going hunting. Hunting for humans," she quoted her husband as saying, shortly before he loaded up his car with an arsenal of firearms, drove to a McDonald's restaurant in the border neighborhood of San Ysidro, and gunned down 40 people. Nineteen, many of them children, died.
The "San Ysidro Massacre," as it became known, has since been eclipsed several times over by bloodier sprees with ever-higher body counts, carried out by more prolific shooters. Many of these gunmen, like the one last week at a Florida high school, have armed themselves with various versions of the AR-15, a civilianized semi-automatic cousin of the American military M-16 assault rifle and M4 carbine. Each time a mass shooting occurs, the argument flares anew over why any civilian should be allowed to possess such a quickly-reloaded, high-velocity weapon built to kill enemy troops on the battlefield.
The particular lethality of the AR-15 and its growing popularity as the tool of choice among homicidal lunatics bent on high casualties would logically compel any civilized society to seek out ways that might help mitigate what has inarguably become a national crisis. But to get down in the weeds, to obsess over banning so-called bump stocks, or how many rounds in a magazine are too many, or, indeed, how can we more effectively keep guns from crazies without trampling the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners, ignores a broader, no less relevant question:
How have we become so enraged with each other that we would willfully steal wholesale the lives of individuals who've done us no harm, people we don't even know?
Second Amendment advocates point out that human beings can just as easily slaughter other human beings driving a rented truck packed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, or just a truck. That way of thinking misses a fundamental point.
What's at issue here is not so much the weapon used as the mindset to use it — the willingness of some among us to inflict their rage on as many of the rest of us as they can, by whatever means available to them.
The sad truth is that, no matter how he's armed, the danger posed by any gunman intent on settling scores, on paying back the world for the poor hand he's been dealt in life, will not be legislated away anytime soon.
Not with more than 8 million versions of the AR-15 already in circulation in the United States.
Not with 300 million-plus other firearms out there.
Not when so little funding is allocated for mental health screenings, and when those screenings are themselves often imprecise.
Not when a 22-year-old law, courtesy of the pro-gun lobby, effectively prohibits the federal government from conducting any research that might point to gun control of any kind.
And, certainly not when so many Americans are convinced that they need guns like the AR-15 to protect themselves from foreign invasion, the so-called "Deep State" or, as is more often the case these days, other Americans with guns.
What we need is a collective gut check. What have we become as a people? How did we get to this terrible point in our history? And how much more of this are we willing to absorb before enough is enough?
No gun, including the AR-15, can kill without someone first resting his finger on the trigger and squeezing. It is a vital that we begin to better understand how that finger ends up on that trigger before the inevitable next slaughter.
James Huberty wanted some sort of last word in San Ysidro. They all do. We don't need to stand by and grant that.
Society still has a chance to get to the root of this rage we have allowed to fester. We owe it to those we have lost to try.
David Freed, a screenwriter, novelist and former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, lives in Santa Barbara. He wrote this for the Sacramento Bee.