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Every few months there’s another incident of a mass shooting a public space, and it always strikes me as…remarkably inefficient.

Wait, stop, come back, I’m not calling for people to be more efficient about mass murder. All I’m saying is that, if you’re going to go after people in a  crowded space, the guys who blew up the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 already demonstrated techniques that are a lot easier than using a firearm. Timothy McVeigh did the same thing, and so do all the people who use car bombs. A bomb will gt a lot more people at once, and more certainly, than shooting from a distance. Firearms are harder to aim than you think.

So then, why is it that these mass murderers go for the gun instead of the truck bomb? Why do they pick the less efficient option?

Perhaps it is because a gun is easier to obtain than X pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, and easier to carry if you don’t have a truck. Then again, a sufficient amount of fertilizer has to be cheaper than a gun, and if you’re the kind of person with murder on your mind it’s possible that the gun store owner will cotton on to that, and refuse the sale. They watch out for that.

Or maybe it is because of the fact that a bomb takes time to set up, whereas a gun can be used quickly. But a lot of mass shooters like the Columbine boys plan their strike well in advance. Not every mass shooting is a matter of impulse.

So what’s going on here? Why plan these things out for so long and then pick the more flashy and less efficient option?

I think what’s happening is that the flashiness is the point. That the point is not simply to kill lots of people, but to look impressive while doing it. To show the world who is boss. You can’t do that with a truck bomb. Truck bombs do not look cool. You can’t pose with a truck bomb. You can’t stand atop a parapet and look like an evil badass imposing your iron will on the world for a brief inglorious moment. With a truck bomb you’re either in the cab looking like a regular schlub, or you’re not there at all.

Furthermore, even of a shooter is hidden and not standing, they are in a position where, for that brief shining moment, they are managing to influence an entire crowd through brutality and fear. You can’t do that with a truck bomb either. You can do it with a time bomb/hidden bomb that you warn everyone about – there’s plenty of those incidents in this country. Plenty of them a few years ago, and the best thing is they don’t even have to be real! The threat is the real thing. The threat is the key, with the time bomb and the gun: suddenly the assailant is the one who is in charge, however briefly.

In that sense, tighter controls on firearms might reduce the number of tools that enable such behavior. It certainly wouldn’t solve the underlying issues leading to such terrorism – isolation, perceived humiliation, a loss of one or both parents, nationalism – but if you want to try to plug the river at its mouth, so to speak, it’s important to understand what about firearms attracts people.

They're looking for the infamy, the name recognition, the sense that not only can they impose their will upon the public but that they can make people scream and run, because they see no other good options of gaining power.

It is not a coincidence that the one-handed pistol dueling pose looks a lot like the classic one-handed swordfighting pose.

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