the Pointlessness of Political Prayer Circles
Note: the use of “politicians” below refers primarily to those of federal or high state authority, e.g. congresspeople or governors
Within the span of two weeks, three mass shootings have returned gun control reform to the political center stage. Ten people were murdered and three were injured in Buffalo, New York. One person was killed and five were injured in Laguna Woods, California. At least twenty-one people were murdered in Uvalde, Texas.
The number of recorded casualties in Uvalde has steadily risen in persistent coverage, and familiar political rhetoric has interwoven with the emotional distress. Several government representatives tweeted that they were “horrified and heartbroken” at the shooting, and both sides of the aisle turned to Bible verses to articulate their empathy.
Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, pressed for the shooting not to be politicized, saying, “We need all Texans to in this one moment in time put aside their own agendas, think of somebody other than ourselves, think about the people who are hurt.”
There is appeal in an “apolitical” approach. With the pain in Uvalde, Laguna Woods, and Buffalo so incredibly raw, would it be appropriate to found legislation on the nature of their tragedies? Should the trauma and needs of victims not receive priority?
Without a doubt, it is apt to acknowledge the heartbreak of victims and the devastating emotional impact of shootings; however, this emotional track is the cover of inaction for many politicians. As Representative Bill Johnson put it, you “can’t legislate evil out of the world,” but legislators should legislate.
Seven years ago, after the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, President Obama seemed of the same mind, saying “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” However, no gun control reform passed during his terms; two years prior to his speech, the Democrat-held Senate defeated a bill to ban assault weapons drafted by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey. Ahead of the midterms later this year, Republican candidates have collectively run over a hundred television ads mentioning guns, but in 2013, Democrat swing votes helped smother the Manchin-Toomey Bill. One such naysayer, Senator Michael Bennet, had the following response to the Uvalde shooting: “We have endured too many tragedies like this as a country. We must do whatever we can to end the scourge of gun violence in America.” All this to say that the lack of progress on gun control is as much the product of visible partisan divide as it is underlying political mechanics.
A common subtext in refrains about mass shootings and gun violence is “not again.” It is disheartening to learn of shooting after shooting, especially as the range of their locations continues to broaden. Increasingly, however, the primary reaction to shootings is anger—we associate the capacity for shootings with legislative inaction. With gun violence on the rise and the Senate split in partisan halves, it is difficult to take remarks of “horror” to heart. For those hoping legislative action will follow such remarks, the gut-wrenching political cycle of shooting response indicates otherwise, and those that see legislative inaction as inevitable aren’t hoping for much. Consequently, politicians expressing grandiose moral and emotional support to victims elicit a uniform effect; they are identified as distraught at gun violence, and regardless of their true intentions, any legislative action or inaction that follows should align with their comment.
That being said, there are certainly bold partisan suggestions floated about as solutions for gun violence. An enhanced effort towards mental health treatment is popular among Republicans—even proposed by Governor Abbott after years of cutting mental health spending—but this “solution,” while considerate of uneven mental health treatment, inaccurately associates the mentally ill with violence. The mentally ill comprise a small proportion of violent criminal offenders and are actually at greater risk than neurotypical (“normal”) individuals to be the victims of violence. On the more legislative track, Democrats press for universal background checks and stricter sale procedures, but the bill at hand wouldn’t transfer background check information to a registry, just seek to review all firearm sellers and customers. Given that a bipartisan coalition pushed through the Fix NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check) Act in 2017 to improve deficiencies in information reporting across government agencies, these goals are both optimistic and limited in a partisan landscape.
The most eyebrow-raising suggestions, however, are those that center around the increased allocation of “defense,” be it arming teachers or stationing police at schools. After years of declining budgets and overworking teachers, it is hard to characterize the concept of arming teachers as anything more than a flippant remark, and it is curious to look to police when their presence at schools has been linked with increased arrests for noncriminal behavior and an arrest doubles the likelihood that a high school student will drop out. Summarily, legislation to protect the American people from gun violence appears unlikely to intersect with gun control reform—proponents of “common sense” reform can easily splinter their votes based on favor for any number of ideas or partisan ideology.
Now, it should not go unnoticed that efforts for gun control reform are mounted in the legislature. It should not be overlooked that a significant amount of legislation has been defeated because of partisan divide. But it is not forgotten that legislation has failed by varied political means, and the American public is suffering for it. At the end of the day, both houses of Congress have held reelection rates well above 75% since 2000, and there has been little good to show for such consistency. The Sandy Hook shooting, set for its ten year anniversary later this year, is one of the few not denoted by city—shootings have become so common that we casually and unflinchingly denote them by city name, expecting the tragedies to be distinct and thus far finding that no cities have had to share such a somber title. When the city and not the citizens becomes the face of tragedy, shootings take municipal shape, and the response of politicians becomes increasingly easier.
A pleasant timetable is unlikely to ever arise for legislation on gun violence, and it appears just as unlikely that politicians will be anything but reactive—or circuitous—about it. After such compacted loss, the clashing of political parties is especially frustrating, and even more so when representatives distance themselves from their elected responsibilities in heartfelt words. Grimly, however, I reemphasize the fact that these are well worn discussions; when the next shooting rocks our nation, as it seems unfortunately bound to, perhaps politicians can withhold public expression of their heartbreak in “solidarity” with the grieving and cut to negotiation of reform.
The unsavoriness of politics is not news, but politicians weep with each shooting as if it is. As they bear responsibility by their own inaction, it is preferable to present themselves pointing fingers and “heartbroken.” However, the majority of Americans support even the concept of stricter gun laws, saying nothing of preference. A compromise on something, such as banning assault weapons (also supported by a majority of Americans), should be possible.
Political identity is so precious at the federal levels, but so is life. No matter how unpopular gun reform may be, it should be manageable—politicians win office for a reason.