A full day later, we still don’t have many answers about the gunman in Las Vegas and why he set out to kill dozens and wound hundreds attending a country music festival. We know he had a lot of guns, both in his hotel room at a casino near the festival and at his home. There are reports he was a big-time gambler and had recently wired a large amount of money to his live-in girlfriend, who remains out of the country. But as far as clues to his motive, there are many questions and hardly any answers.
In the meantime, we are having the same argument we always have after mass shootings — or more accurately, the same argument about whether we should even be arguing. Moving straight to a policy debate is criticized as “politicizing tragedy,” a charge those doing the politicizing no longer bother to deny. We should politicize these terrible events, they say, because the “political process” is how we solve problems in our representative government.
They have a point. But in another important way, they miss the point.
It’s true that the political process is how we solve problems. It’s also true that, no matter the circumstances of a particular shooting, we hear the exact same proposed answers. That’s a big reason those who strongly oppose more gun-control laws call it “politicization.”
For example: One of the biggest gun-control proponents in Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, wrote this in an op-ed for the Washington Post:
“(C)ontrary to the mythology spread by the gun lobby, there is not much real controversy around the first steps we should take to trim rates of gun crime. Large majorities of Americans support universal background checks, permit requirements for gun ownership and bans on the most dangerous kinds of weapons and ammunition. The gun lobby, and the loud vocal minority it echoes, make the issue seem like more of a hot button than it is.”
This may be true, although the Pew surveys which Murphy cites show some wide gaps between the opinions of gun owners and non-owners. But it’s also true in the case of universal background checks, the item on Murphy’s list with the most agreement by far, that a) we don’t yet know if the Las Vegas gunman passed a background check, and b) in most recent cases, the killers did pass background checks. The shooters in Orlando, Aurora and Tucson all passed background checks. The Virginia Tech shooter passed two background checks (although he likely shouldn’t have, given his history of mental illness). The Sandy Hook shooter didn’t have to pass a background check, because he stole the guns from his mother, who bought them legally (and who became his first victim). Talk about background checks, when they haven’t prevented most recent mass shootings, and are pitched as a first step toward harsher, more controversial proposals, certainly sounds like politicization.
Another hallmark of politicization is ignorance about the subject. Such as what we saw from a certain recent presidential candidate on Monday:
Subsequently corrected here:
Of course, the misleading claim was re-tweeted about 70 times more than the correction. It was much the same with this pair of missives from an actor:
From “pretty much anyone” to “almost nobody” in just two hours. This kind of ignorance about guns and gun laws makes gun owners believe gun-control proponents are, you guessed it, politicizing the tragedy.
All of this poisons the well for debate. It’s not really about whether “nothing can be done,” the attitude pro-gun folks are accused of holding, but what can be done that would be effective. Murphy’s op-ed referred to an estimated 40 percent drop in gun crimes (it appears he actually meant gun homicides) in Connecticut between 1996 and 2005 after that state passed gun-control measures. But that drop is consistent with the actual, national change in the gun-homicide rate during that time (via the Carpe Diem blog; note that in 2005 the gun homicide rate is at the minus-40 percent line):
In any event, it’s unclear that expanding the Connecticut laws to other states would result in fewer mass shootings, the impetus for this whole discussion. After all, the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., took place well after those laws were passed.
So here’s a proposal for how to talk about one of these tragedies without “politicizing” it: Wait for the facts to be gathered. Think deeply about what kind of policies might have prevented it, or at least made it far less likely. Measure those policies against other mass shootings, too. Know the issue well enough to avoid such inanities as “pretty much anyone in the U.S. can (buy a machine gun).” Recognize the due process concerns that arise when one talks about taking away others’ rights. Aim for small, incremental steps that might attain consensus rather than sweeping reforms.
Sound difficult? It should. That’s how the “political process” in our country is supposed to be.