Sometimes the heart-wrenching ritual of mass shootings in America — in which we are shocked, we mourn, we debate, we despond, we repeat — can leave us feeling like a country that simply cannot see eye-to-eye on the basic tenets of unspeakable tragedy.
But before we go deeper, it’s worth remembering that there’s one fundamental truth that literally everyone in their right mind can agree upon: We have too many mass shootings in America. By one measure, yesterday’s horror in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas — where 26 were killed and over 20 were injured, with victims ranging in age from 5 to 72 and including a pregnant woman and the church pastor’s 14 year-old daughter — was the 377th mass shooting in this country in 2017.
That’s already more than one a day for the entire year. And the year isn’t over.
Sadly, our national agreement stops at the fact that this must stop. What we can’t agree on is why this keeps happening.
We can talk about the horrifying statistics (like: the US has more guns per capita than any country in the world, at over one gun per person) or the horrifying quagmire of politics in D.C. (in which special interest groups purchase legislation through funding political campaigns, making real change a costly and undemocratic nightmare). We can talk about gun control (in a nutshell, you either ban certain types of guns, implement waiting periods, prevent specific people from possessing guns, or outlaw guns entirely; for the record, the Texas killer used an AR-15 variant, a military style assault rifle that was banned in 1994, and has seen a surge in legal sales after that weapons ban lapsed in 2004). We can talk about mental illness. We can discuss whether incidents like this can or should be “politicized.” And we will discuss all of these issues, here and now and, seemingly, forever.
But you want to know the real reason this keeps happening? It’s because we all can’t agree to look at the underlying problem the same way. Both sides want less dead, yes. But one side thinks that the answer is to have government limit people’s ability to get their hands on guns. (A “liberal” view of government’s power.) While the other side thinks the answer is to allow people the freedom to defend themselves. (A “conservative” view of how government should flex.) One side trusts institutions to make the world better, and the other trusts themselves and their rights and is suspicious of anyone who says otherwise. And it is this divide that the National Rifle Association highlights to its members, and to its largely Republican congregation: “Guns” equals “rights,” and any attempt to limit guns is also a limit of your “rights” with broader implications, and thus a scary step on a slippery slope towards government controlling you outright.
See, it’s a culture issue. As long as gun-owners feel their way of life is being quashed and condescended, they will always resist at the ballot box. As long as they feel their actual freedoms are being taken in favor of theoretical lives that will theoretically be under attack, they will not oblige. And with these voters mobilized by the likes of the N.R.A., the politicians will never have the strength to vote otherwise. As long as people see guns as freedom, and anything restricting them as overreach, we are going to continue having a culture that prizes easy access to guns as the best deterrent to rogue shooters.
Nevermind that the data shows that where there is more restrictive gun control laws, there are less gun deaths. (Take for instance, the fact that the ten states with the strictest gun laws also have the lowest gun-deaths per capita. These include Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and California.) Gun “rights” advocates seemingly argue that they would rather take their chances with being armed and quick on the draw to defend themselves against potential mass shooters, rather than having guns being more heavily regulated. On this point, it’s worth noting: The gunfire at the Texas church lasted 15 seconds, and killed 27 people. It’s difficult to imagine how quick the congregation would have to be on the draw to defend against the military efficiency of that carnage. But the fact that all 50 states permit concealed carry of guns, and that most of the laws that reversed bans on concealed carry were passed after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, suggests that our government thinks our best line of defense is taking a shot at being Dirty Harry.
It is true that mental illness is often a factor in these killings. We have a celebrity obsessed culture, in which attaining some degree of fame or infamy — by whatever means necessary — is a bigger goal for more people than ever. Combine this with how we societally fail to help people deal with their grievances in healthy manners and you get a recipe for disaster. And while preventing mentally ill people from homicidal action is an evolving field, as documented in this thorough Esquire piece, even in these instances, there are two types of killers: The “true criminals,” who would get their hands on a gun even if it was technically illegal; and the people who “do a crime,” who would have no idea how to get a gun if not for the ease with which they are obtained in this country.
The moments following these horrific mass shootings naturally elicit conversations about why they happen so often. And here we are. But they also spur more meta debates over whether these moments should be discussed in political terms at all. Somehow, this, too, becomes grounds for debate, with certain parties — nearly always those favoring “gun rights” — saying that it is inappropriate to “politicize” mass shootings.
But if identifying contributing causes for mass shootings is a political act, choosing not to discuss these events is an act just as political. Because leaving these mass shootings unexamined is inherently an argument for the status quo. It’s implicitly an argument that things are, essentially, just fine as is. And that benefits those for whom the status quo is working. And that is the gun industry, who sell more guns than ever after events like this; and the N.R.A. who represent those manufacturers interests; and those who are happy with the freedoms they presently possess, to go to gun shows and procure guns easily, without question as to whether the ease of obtaining guns might have anything to do with the frequency of gun related deaths.
This is the game of subterfuge and twisted politics. This is the way agendas reframe debates. We see this misdirection in the arena of firearms, just as we’ve seen a version of it on the football field: Kaepernick kneels to protest police brutality, and suddenly the debate’s been reframed as one over respect for the military.
So watch carefully for the way in which President Trump responds to this shooting. We know this shooter was a white male; imagine if it was a Muslim. Last month, we saw his wildly disparate reactions to the white male mass shooter in Vegas responsible for the deadliest shooting in modern American history, which was to send condolences to the victims while declining to discuss the underlying epidemic of mass shootings or gun ownership; and then to the truck attack by an Uzbeki immigrant in downtown NYC, after which Trump immediately called for shifts in Homeland Security policy and criticized the New York Democrat Chuck Schumer under a banner of getting tough on “terrorism.”
Clearly, for the President, sometimes a national tragedy is an appropriate platform for political debate, and sometimes it is not.
But for you, the voter, the takeaway is this: Watch the way that people talk about these tragedies. And understand that changing gun policy will require votes, and votes require money, and the gun industry has the money. But even more to the heart of the matter, it comes down to the culture of people who swear by their guns. They want their way of life, without coastal elites dictating to them. They want their guns. They want their freedoms.
There will always be people with a sick need for fame or infamy, just as there will always be mentally unbalanced people who view homicide as the ultimate way to air their grievances. But if you want less guns on the streets, you have to convince people who love guns that implementing restrictions is not an infringement of their rights. And that in the long run they’ll be safer with less guns out there, too.
The question is: Will they believe you? And will you?