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"This is a political choice we make"

President Obama addresses the nation on October 1, 2015, after the Oregon mass shooting.
President Obama addresses the nation on October 1, 2015, after the Oregon mass shooting.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America," President Obama said. "We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction."

The occasion for Obama's speech was a mass shooting. But which mass shooting? The shooting on June 18, 2015, that killed nine in Charleston, South Carolina? The shooting on May 23, 2014, that killed six in Isla Vista, California? The shooting on July 20, 2012, that left 12 dead in Aurora, Colorado? Was it Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, California?

In this case, it was the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, that left nine dead on October 1, 2015. But it could have been any of the 351 mass shootings that have happened in the past 335 days. It could have been any of the more than 1,040 mass shootings that have happened since a gunman opened fire on Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, killing 27.

"This is a political choice we make," Obama said, and he was right. Sometimes we make the opposite choice.

On November 13, terrorists associated with ISIS murdered at least 129 people in Paris, France. Though the attacks occurred on another continent, reaction in America was swift and severe. In short order, 26 governors said they would bar Syrian refugees from settling in their states.

As a policy response, this was absurd. The Paris attacks weren't committed by Syrian refugees — they were committed by the people those refugees were fleeing. And if ISIS wanted to sneak terrorists into the United States, it would be easier to have them pose as European tourists than to smuggle them through the more arduous and closely scrutinized refugee process.

But the fear governors were responding to was real. The Paris attacks had left Americans afraid; they needed something done. The problem was that the attacks hadn't been in America — there was no clear security hole to close, no obvious vulnerability to address. So in the absence of policy that could make them safer, Americans turned to policies, and to politicians, that could at least make them feel safer. They demanded that something be done, and something was done, or at least governors around the country tried to do something. On Wednesday, the state of Texas sued the federal government to prevent the resettlement of six Syrian refugees.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing 2,996 people. It is to take nothing away from the tragedy to say that that is 1/11th the number of people killed every year by guns in America.

The country's response was sweeping. We passed the Patriot Act and created the Department of Homeland Security. We began surveilling ourselves and the rest of the world. We invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. We spent trillions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of soldiers. Our president promised to "rid the world of evildoers," and we cheered.

But after the 351st mass shooting since the start of the year, our politicians had nothing to offer but prayers. And that's because a political choice has been made, or at least our elected officials believe a political choice has been made — they believe that what America wants done is nothing.

And maybe they're right. Polls shows majorities want a bit more gun control, but nothing radical. And past experience show those polls don't amount to enough political pressure to get anything passed through the United States Congress.

This is a choice we are making, collectively, as a country. Faced with other threats, we have made other, more radical choices. We will do almost anything, spend almost any amount, to prevent deaths from jihadist terrorism — and if Wednesday's shooting turns out to have been motivated by a similar ideology, the response may again prove aggressive, for better or for worse.

But so far, we have proven we will do basically nothing to prevent deaths from gun violence if preventing deaths from gun violence means making it even trivially harder to purchase guns. If this is just another mass shooting — a horrible string of words, but in America, an apt one — we will probably lament it, and fight over it, and then move on from it. That is our choice, and America's death toll from guns is the cost.