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The dangerous defeatism that follows mass shootings

No, the gun control debate was not over after Sandy Hook. It’s not over after Uvalde either.

Marnie Beale of Arlington, Virginia, holds a sign at the US Capitol calling for background checks on gun purchases on May 25, a day after the country’s latest mass shooting, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two teachers.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Nineteen children and two teachers were murdered Tuesday at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, a recurrence of a uniquely American nightmare we seem doomed to repeat again and again and again.

The five children dead and more than 30 injured at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton, California, in 1989 — one of the first of these large-scale tragedies — presaged this terrible trend. Twenty children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, didn’t stop these occurrences, even though the massacre was so horrific that it seemed, for a moment, that Congress would have no choice but to act. Countless other young people have been killed, injured, and traumatized by school shootings since the late ’90s with such frequency that their stories now often don’t even make headlines unless the body count is high enough.

By every measure, it is dispiriting to behold, the reality of what decades of policy prioritizing the unfettered rights of gun owners over the safety of the public has wrought: We have failed our kids in the most basic sense of the word. The most vulnerable among us — children, and people who are targeted because of their race, religion, or cultural identity — bear the brunt of our collective inability to keep each other safe. In the face of this failure, it’s easy to fall back on a familiar kind of fatalism.

“Nobody is going to do anything,” the Gravel Institute, which makes YouTube videos to promote progressive ideas, tweeted right after the Uvalde shooting. “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” wrote Dan Hodges, a British columnist, on Twitter in 2015. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” Every time another mass shooting happens, his tweet is shared over and over again.

It’s an understandable impulse. It’s also a harmful one. The fight for safer schools (and restaurants and concerts and nightclubs and grocery stores and places of worship) simply cannot be over, especially when something as serious as children’s lives and our ability to be safe in public is at stake. “For Democrats to play into the hands of the corporate gun lobby, and just letting them define what the realm of possible is, it’s so defeatist to me,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told Vox in 2019. “At a time with the levels of carnage in our country, we don’t need people who are defeatist in their thinking about what’s possible.”

This form of defeatism, rooted in so much heartbreak, diminishes the work of survivors and activists like Gabby Giffords and the Parkland students, who haven’t taken it as a given that their tragedies will be repeated in generations to come. It disregards the success that they’ve been able to bring on a state level, expanding background checks, banning bump stocks (which later became federal policy), and making it harder for high-risk individuals to get and keep guns. It is the least we can do, to honor their hard work and the memories of those who were killed, to not preemptively declare that they have lost.

The idea that the fight for sensible gun reform failed because it didn’t happen immediately after the shooting in Newtown also rests on misguided assumptions about how large-scale social and political change happens.

“That’s fundamentally the wrong way to look at how Washington works,” Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Connecticut, told the New York Times last week, when asked if Congress missed its chance at gun reform after Sandy Hook. “I’ve studied enough great social change movements to know they often take decades to succeed. … I think I am part of one of these great social change movements, and I’m confident that you have to put up with a lot of failures before you’re met with success.”

The civil rights movement didn’t spark change overnight, but was the result of years of organizing, lobbying, and building public support. Social reform takes time, and it is often only with the hindsight of history that we know which moments were really significant. Keeping weapons out of the hands of people who would use them for violence will be a gargantuan challenge, especially in a country with more guns than people, and a major political party that has, for more than a decade, staunchly refused attempts to control their proliferation and sale. That doesn’t mean that these efforts aren’t worth it, or that no good will ever come of them. It just makes the need for action ever more urgent.

Even now, the gun control debate is not over — just look at the number of people raging, mourning, and demanding that America must do better. They are the best evidence that the matter is not settled, and they are indicative of the 53 percent of Americans who favor more restrictions on the purchase and ownership of firearms. Ninety percent of Americans support universal background checks and 72 percent say they support the creation of a national red flag law, which would make it easier for law enforcement to take guns from dangerous individuals.

Everyone, presumably, wants their child to be safe in school. These are issues where a small minority has blocked action on proposals with widespread public support. Those who want change should focus their efforts on disrupting the “minority rule doom loop,” as Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate, calls it, rather than preemptively declaring that minority rule has won.

It’s not just the public. While Republicans have thus far resisted political pressure, and Congress has gotten so dysfunctional that it can hardly respond to public needs, the reality is that the Senate has gotten close before, such as Sen. Joe Manchin’s proposal to expand background checks in 2015; the difference between action and inaction in the Senate is always (maddeningly) a matter of a handful of votes — and a refusal to change the filibuster.

The House of Representatives has already passed expanded background check legislation this session. The NRA, once considered one of the dominant forces in American political life, has been weakened by scandals and lawsuits. It might be hard to remember now, but in the era of Blue Dog Democrats, many Democratic lawmakers boasted about their NRA ratings, and admonishments not to “politicize the tragedy” of mass shootings were a powerful tool for silencing critics of the gun lobby. The parameters of public debate on guns have shifted so significantly that it’s almost unimaginable today. None of this amounts to the real changes needed to prevent mass shootings, but it is a sign of a culture that has already begun to change how it thinks and talks about guns.

On Tuesday evening, Murphy challenged his Republican colleagues to work with him on legislation that could prevent more mass shootings from happening. It “may not guarantee America never ever again sees a mass shooting,” he admitted. “But by doing something, we at least stop sending this quiet message of endorsement to these killers whose brains are breaking, who see the highest levels of government doing nothing, shooting after shooting.”

Murphy is right. To do nothing is to endorse an intolerable status quo, one that puts all of us, and our children, at needless risk. It will continue to be true, no matter how hopeless it can feel. Making it harder for would-be mass shooters to access guns might not stop another tragedy like the one that happened at Robb Elementary. But it would be a start. America can’t afford not to try.

Understanding is critical

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