WASHINGTON -- Jared Loughner, it would appear, is delusional. His troubling rants reveal a person with a tenuous grip on the rational world. But given a culture that allowed him to legally purchase a firearm and ammunition, you have to wonder whether he's the only one with a loose grip on reality.
Loughner seems to believe that his government was seeking to control him through grammar and that proper use of the language will guard against tyranny. Many of his fellow citizens seem to believe that any attempt to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally incompetent or the dangerously unstable is a sign of government tyranny.
If his disjointed writings are any guide, Loughner believes that paper currency has no value. Many of his fellow Americans seem to think that sensible gun regulations have no value -- that they are mere obstacles to the law-abiding citizen who wants to protect home and hearth.
According to polls, support for gun safety laws has fallen over the last two decades -- despite Columbine, despite Virginia Tech, despite the numbing routine of news reports on shooting sprees. Only 44 percent of Americans believe that gun laws should be stricter, according to an October Gallup Poll.
Loughner believes, apparently, in a mystical notion called "conscious dreaming." Many of his fellow citizens have become entranced by a similarly mystical belief -- that we can intimidate criminals, secure public spaces and protect our loved ones only if more of us are armed.
That's just insane. Yet, one of the predictable responses to last weekend's atrocity was a literal call to arms. A pro-firearms group, the Arizona Citizens Defense League, has proposed legislation that would require the Arizona Department of Public Safety to provide firearms training to members of Congress and their aides. Charles Heller, one of the group's leaders, suggested that a deranged constituent might be intimidated by the prospect of encountering armed congressional staff.
Really. That notion reveals twin delusions. One suggests that a lunatic would rationally assess risks. The other assumes that a civilian who has had a few sessions at a firing range will have the mental focus and the precision to hit an armed suspect during several seconds of panic, chaos and surging adrenaline. That's a test that soldiers and police officers often fail.
But never mind that. Reality cannot pierce armor-plated fantasies any more than facts can dent Loughner's apparent paranoia.
Arizona has some of the nation's most lenient gun laws -- laws that are actually weaker, historians note, than during the days of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. Back then, the leaders of Tombstone had banned deadly weapons inside the city limits.
Nowadays, you can take your concealed weapon into a bar or restaurant. The state does not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon. In that culture, it's no great surprise that Loughner, who was reportedly dismissed from a community college because he was disruptive, was able to buy a semiautomatic weapon and high-capacity magazines.
In 1994, Congress outlawed certain assault-type weapons, as well as high-capacity magazines of the sort that Loughner allegedly used. But the ban expired in 2004, and, given the political power of the gun lobby, few politicians have dared propose anything like it since. While a couple of Democrats are reportedly considering pushing for a new ban on high-capacity magazines, they're unlikely to find much enthusiasm for it among their peers.
The National Rifle Association and a network of similar organizations have succeeded in cowing gun control activists and their Democratic allies. President Obama hasn't dared propose stricter gun laws. (Nevertheless, the idea that Obama has a secret plan to confiscate privately owned firearms animates certain precincts of the far right. Its legions are persuaded that he will send a signal and storm troopers will spread out across the country, collecting weapons.)
If Loughner is, indeed, suffering from a mental illness, medical science offers him some hope. Pharmacology has come a long way over the last several years. But there is little help on the horizon for a nation suffering gun lunacy.