Speaking on the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, President Barack Obama made a critical point about gun violence in America: "to actively do nothing is a decision as well."
This was a rebuke to previous responses Obama and other advocates of gun control have heard in the face of mass shootings: Critics are often quick to say that calling for action on guns is "politicization" — a political act that takes advantage of a tragedy. But they ignore that doing nothing — to purposely and actively preserve America's lax gun policies — is a political act in and of itself.
After a mass shooting in October, for example, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly said, "Let's be honest here and stop politicizing it." Then-presidential candidate Ben Carson said, "When do we get to the point where we have people who actually want to solve our problems rather than just politicize everything? I think that's what the American people are so sick and tired of."
This is one of the reasons America seems to have the same debate after every mass shooting: A massacre happens, someone calls for action, critics say calls to action are politicizing the issue, and nothing changes.
The reality is that responding to crises with political agendas is one of the things that the government is supposed to do, and doing nothing is a political and policy decision by itself.
The political system is supposed to address crises
Dealing with crises is one of the points of government and the political system. The government is meant to solve problems that individuals and private organizations can't fix on their own. And the political system lets the general public hold politicians accountable, and provides a way to discuss the best strategies to respond to big problems.
In fact, the most consistent criticisms hurled at political leaders come when they do nothing in the face of a crisis. After Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Democrats criticized President George W. Bush for vacationing during the beginning of the disaster. After the attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, Republicans criticized Obama for not calling the attack an act of terror (he did) and not being in the Situation Room the night of the attacks. This happens time and time again, whether the issue is police officers getting shot, the Keystone pipeline, war, or something else entirely.
This makes sense. If something bad happens, and governments can do something to prevent it from happening again, we should expect our lawmakers to respond. When presidential candidates claim they would better handle a 3 am phone call about a terrorist attack, or that they would prevent another terrorist attack in America, they are telling voters that they are the best person to handle crises and stop them from happening again in the future. And voters like that, because that's one of the reasons we elect these politicians.
In the case of gun violence, there is something the federal government can do. We know, for instance, that America has more gun violence than other developed nations; we also know part of the reason for that is America has more guns, and the research very clearly shows more guns mean more gun deaths. So reducing the number of guns — by limiting access to them, or by immediately cutting the supply of them through, for example, buyback programs — would very likely lead to fewer gun deaths.
As one example, if the US reduced its firearm deaths to UK levels, it would have saved nearly 33,000 lives in 2013.
There's also evidence that government policies can prevent mass shootings. A New York Times analysis of mass shootings, for example, found mass shooters in Charleston, South Carolina, and Binghamton, New York, would have run into difficulty buying guns if the federal background check system was more thorough and better funded. That is something the government can fix by, for instance, appropriating more money toward the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
So we know the federal government could take steps to reduce gun violence, including some mass shootings. We know the political system was set up to solve these kinds of crises that affect broad segments of the population — it is literally the point of government. So why wouldn't it be okay for the government and the politicians who lead it to try to act?
The deeper reason is that critics of "politicizing" massacres actually are getting the government to act in a certain way — by not acting at all.
Inaction is a political and policy choice
There is a reason the criticisms about "politicizing" gun control tend to come from conservative pundits on Fox News and Republican lawmakers: They want the federal government to do nothing. They prefer the current situation — of lax gun laws — and want it to stay that way.
The best way to keep the status quo is by making sure debates about it never get off the ground. That's exactly what happens after mass shootings: Someone, such as the president, may come out asking for Congress to do something about guns by passing gun control measures. The people opposed to such measures come out and say that gun control advocates need to stop politicizing a tragedy. The debate never gets off the ground, days and weeks pass, and people move on to the next major news event.
This is so common that gun control advocates predict it every single time a shooting happens and gets lots of media attention. After his daughter Alison Parker was killed in the shooting of two Virginia journalists in August 2015, Andy Parker said, "Next week, it isn't going to be a story anymore, and everybody's gonna forget it." That is exactly what happened — within weeks, the public had moved on, and the Virginia shooting was no longer in the news, overwhelmed by stories about a Kentucky clerk and Europe's refugee crisis. No national talk of gun control happened again until the Oregon shooting in October.
For better or worse, that means the only way to get significant legislation passed is by staying on an issue, particularly when it's on the news, usually due to a crisis. And since mass shootings help highlight the need for gun control, they are often the only major opportunity for lawmakers to act on momentum. After all, the closest that Congress came to passing universal background checks was after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and previous laws passed in the wake of similar tragedies, like the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
Opponents of gun control know all of this. They know calls to action could lead to laws they don't like, and they would rather these calls don't happen and nothing changes. So they continue telling the president and others to stop politicizing the tragedy — knowing full well that this will have a major policy consequence: the continuation of the status quo.