Our Obsolete Responses to Mass Shootings

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, the usual tired tropes of political and media response have quickly emerged, and by now we all should be utterly sick and tired of them. Was there ever an topic more urgent yet more rigidly locked into outworn modes of thinking?

The media focuses on motive and personality.  In an era when the only qualification of the current occupant of the presidency is his celebrity, it’s no surprise that we tend to focus on personal identity and motive when we seek explanations for the inexplicable. In the grip of outrage, we have a childlike wish for a story, for a neat linear narrative we can follow like our favorite TV drama. News organizations are barefacedly in the business of entertainment, and their focus on the person and motive of the shooter is less about prevention than it is about their product and our prurience. Hence news anchors are shipped to Vegas to stand pointlessly in front of the hotel from which carnage rained down, and we linger voyeuristically on the words of the survivors and the biographies of the dead.

This is exploitation, not news. The only high-minded argument for media scrutiny of a mass-murderer and his motives is that, in understanding him, we will be able to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future; authorities will be better able to profile and interdict future perpetrators, and we will be enabled to detect them in our communities.

But there is little evidence of this. There are no explanations for some brands of inhumanity, and no purpose in constructing fables to explain it. The frequency of mass murder in the U.S. has increased rather than diminished in this age of unending news cycles and perpetually talking heads –psychiatrists, security experts, former police chiefs — who all too willingly offer their views to the maw of media commerce with complete confidence and utter irrelevance. What does it matter, finally, if the man went nuts because of gambling debts or because of some pathological gene inherited from his most-wanted father? The dead remain dead, and future mass murderers, legally collecting AR-15s as we speak, remain undetectable.

It’s the means, not the motive, that really matters. So the subject of gun control inevitably arises, and what happens next is painfully predictable.

The right deflects discussion of gun control by invoking grief and the human condition.  The President’s press secretary tells us that now is not the time to talk policy. The President himself appears briefly to make sanctimonious pronouncements about the nature of evil, his empathy with the bereaved, and how such a horrific event can’t undo the national “unity” that he casually tramples every other day of the week. Republican Congressmen express indignation that such a “tragedy” (akin, it would seem, to a hurricane or an earthquake) should be “politicized” by those who hold the merely logical view that the frequency and lethality of civilian assaults using military-style weapons might be reduced by making a those weapons less available to civilians.

Conservative pundit Chris Buskirk, publisher and editor of a right-wing opinion outlet called “American Greatness,” reported in an NPR interview on Wednesday that most of the presumably right-leaning callers to his talk show after the shooting were steeped in existential thoughts: “How to grapple with this at a human level; what do we do in the face of grief, in the face of tragedy? How do we grapple with evil as part of the human condition?” They weren’t interested in “politics,” he said – meaning, of course, what might actually be done about evil, or how we might go about elevating the human condition.

Buskirk went on, without a hint of irony, to describe private gun ownership as a means for “the weak to protect themselves against the strong.” What a bizarre perversion of the facts on the ground beneath the Mandalay Bay, where the ready availability of military armaments to an unhinged individual made him immeasurably stronger than anyone in sight.

Let’s at least get our vocabulary straight. This was a crime, not a tragedy. The latter word not only depersonalizes the perpetrator, equating him to some kind of force of nature, but more significantly absolves us from responsibility to respond to it with anything but helpless empathy, the candle placed on the sidewalk, the heartfelt eulogy, the fearful imagining of how each of us would feel if that child or wife or brother, cut down all unawares, thinking themselves safe and not in a place where weapons of war could be loosed on them, had been our own. The results are profoundly tragic to the individuals affected, but the act was a crime, as is the long, ongoing history of indifference to and tortured rationalizations for its causes.

At bottom, what act could be more “political” than a man turning weapons of war on his fellow citizens? There’s no inconsistency between our profound empathy with those whose lives have been destroyed by military weaponry and our desire that there be fewer of them.

The right dismisses gun control as politically impossible.  Holman Jenkins, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages on Wednesday, declared flatly that “Gun-control proposals always float up in the aftermath of mass shootings, singularly detached from any plan that could be carried out, much less command majority support from the U.S. electorate. A law banning gun sales is not in the cards. A law seriously curtailing private gun ownership, as exists in the U.K., is not in the cards.”

Daniel Henninger chimed in from the same op-ed platform, calling gun control “the oldest, most sterile, wheel-spinning issue in American politics,” and informing us that “the chance that the American people will ever disarm remains zero. Spin on.”

If ever there were a counsel of despair, it’s these clarion calls to give up on any legislative response to our national epidemic of mass shootings for the reason that such proposals are unlikely to “command majority support from the U.S. electorate.” This is, of course, precisely the argument that was made to forestall desegregation, and environmental protection, and women’s right to vote, and gay rights and, for that matter, mass polio inoculation and America’s entry into World War II. We would be living in a far grimmer world if this kind of call for inaction had been heeded in the past, and it omits from the discussion the key task of actual leaders, who are in grievously short supply these days: to inspire and instruct the U.S. electorate to change its views to ones which, while unpopular in the moment, are demonstrably in its best long-term interests.

Ironically, someone like Donald Trump might be the best vessel for the cause of stricter gun control, in the way that Nixon was the only American president who could have recognized China – because the history and politics of our “chaos President” insulate him from accusations of ideological betrayal.

The right dismisses gun control as ineffective. Here’s where conservatives put on their big-boy pants and give the rest of us a lesson in hard-nosed pragmatism. Gun control can’t prevent killings with guns. The Clinton-era ban on assault rifles had no discernible effect on what is vaguely called “gun violence” to make the point. Statistics are at the ready: assault rifles were used in only 27% of mass shootings from 1999 to 2013. Specific cases like the Virginia Tech shootings didn’t involve rifles at all. Most homicides are committed with something other than rifles. Other countries’ experience with stricter gun control is inapposite because of their cultural and historical differences. And so on.[1]

These are classic examples of the rhetorical technique of the straw man: set up an impossible goal (eliminating or significantly reducing gun deaths per se), knock it down with data that indicate such a goal is impossible, and consider your work done. But this totally misses the point of most gun control advocates, and specifically of those who want to go after the legal ownership of rapid-fire assault weapons, which is that even a marginal reduction in the frequency or lethality of mass shootings means an incalculable number of lives saved and maimings prevented. Not all, but a significant number. And shouldn’t that be enough to get us beyond this tired point?

It’s at the infinitesimal human margin where the success of gun control should be measured, that one child who would be walking today if the dick in the hotel had only a handgun, not in the broad swath of faceless statistics. To do nothing because stricter limits on gun ownership won’t prevent even the majority of gun deaths is to allow the perfect to drive out the good.

The right dismisses gun control as unconstitutional. Somewhat harder to dispense with are the legalistic arguments for doing nothing that are reflexively deployed by the right. It’s a Constitutional right to carry a gun, they say, a right that the Supreme Court affirmed in no uncertain terms in the recent Heller decision, and any meaningful action on gun control will have to deal with that fact. The better solution, they say, would be to marshal “big data” and other surveillance techniques to identify killers before they use their guns to kill (a recommendation that somehow always fails to give the First and Fourth Amendments the deference so slavishly granted to the Second).

The fact is that legislation can be carefully drafted to withstand Heller. Or Heller can be overruled.  Or the Second Amendment can itself be amended. And let’s not hear yet again about the “Framers’ intent.” Who can doubt that if you dragged the Framers, every last bewigged one of them, out of the past and introduced them to an NRA lobbyist, much less made them read last Monday’s headlines, they’d be utterly aghast at what we’ve allowed to happen in the name of their little Constitutional footnote about arms and militias. What the Framers clearly did intend was that the document they were drafting be a living, evolving contract between the people and their government, not the ossified object of brain-dead idolatry that it has become.

The left portrays gun owners as deplorable. To again quote Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal: “The NRA and pro-gun sentiment doesn’t defeat [liberals seeking stricter gun control]. What defeats them is that their compulsive moral condescension impedes their ability to see the country clearly.”

We need to recognize and accept that guns mean different things to different people. I’ll readily admit they mean next to nothing to me, but to some a gun is not just a weapon but an emblem of proud family or military tradition, imbued with as much positive meaning as an old baseball glove or a crucifix. To others it’s a plaything, but a legitimately important plaything. And to a large number of our fellow citizens, ownership of guns is at least symbolic, and to some promotive, of individual freedom in a country founded on that principle. In any civil discussion about gun control, those feelings and beliefs have to be respected.

Yes, there’s the taint of self-delusion in the often obliquely-expressed notion that we need guns because we might need to rise up in revolution against our government, as though this were 1776. This is a fantasy of superannuated man-children who can’t let go of playing cowboy.

But we shouldn’t deny that when we talk about stricter gun control, we’re asking a significant percentage of our fellow citizens to make a real sacrifice for a greater good. Yet isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be about?  Isn’t that exactly how we define real heroism, real patriotism, real love of country?

It’s time we all started thinking in new ways about horrific crimes like the massacre at the Mandalay Bay, and what to do about them.


[1] All this from The Wall Street Journal, “The Gun Control Mirage” (October 5, 2017).

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