Following a mass shooting in America, there’s a very common line used to resist any discussion around gun control: Don’t politicize a tragedy.
After the Las Vegas shooting on Sunday night, killing at least 59 and injuring more than 500, the exact same scenario played out. Hillary Clinton called for tougher gun laws in response. Conservative media figures, infuriated by her proposal, told her to stop — conservative pundit David Wohl, for one, tweeted, “This disgraceful woman is already politicizing the #LasVegas tragedy. Another reminder of how unfit she would have been as @POTUS.”
Supporters of gun control, meanwhile, insisted they’re not politicizing a shooting. One popular tweet by writer Ed Krassenstein argued, “This isn't about politics, it's about 50+ dead innocent people at the hands of a white American terrorist. It's about saving the lives of our children, brothers and sisters!”
The reality, though is both sides are politicizing the tragedy — supporters of gun control by, well, supporting gun control, and opponents of gun control are trying to keep the status quo by getting people to stop talking about guns.
That’s actually fine. Politics is how laws are made, and mass shootings are events that better laws and policies can help prevent. So we should expect the political process to establish an environment where mass shootings won’t happen again or, at least, don’t happen as often.
Without those expectations, nothing changes — and these tragedies will keep happening.
The political system is supposed to address crises
Dealing with crises is one of the functions 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, a consistent criticism 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 President Barack Obama for not calling the attack an act of terror (he did) and not being in the Situation Room the night of the attacks. President Donald Trump is now facing similar criticisms for his slow response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
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 toward UK levels by, say, having its much stricter gun laws, America 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 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 — especially since the polling shows that the great majority of Americans on both parties support, for example, background checks on private sales and sales at gun shows, bans on assault-style weapons, and a federal database to track gun sales.
So after a mass shooting, someone 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 — which again was only discussed for a couple weeks.
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 were 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 others to stop politicizing the tragedy — knowing full well that this will have a major policy consequence: the continuation of the status quo.