Left unsaid on a day of dull shock

Has America reached a turning point?

The mass murder at a Connecticut school has produced a stunned, numbed reaction: no one really knows what to say or do, and the widespread feeling might be summed up by an uncharacteristically serious article from The Onion, that ended “screw it, there’s nothing else to say.” Few people could talk about anything else, and no one knew what to say about the horror other than that it was a horror, so this is not an event where you can – or, maybe, even should – put together a highlights reel of comments. A few people embarrassed themselves instantly, like Mike Huckabee, who trotted out the familiar line that school shootings happen because we have “systematically remove[d] God” from the schools. But mostly it was a day of complete dull shock.

There were however, two issues that became prevalent in the arguments that developed after the horror took place. One issue was whether the media erred in its coverage of the story, and particularly in talking to the children who were on the scene. James Poniewozik of Time magazine wrote an article arguing that while it is within the duties of reporters to report on a tragedy, they should avoid interviewing children at the scene: “It’s difficult enough after a tragedy like this to answer how we can protect kids from violence in a safe place. We at least know how we can protect them from being exploited in the moments afterward. Turn the cameras away.”

The other issue is when it’s the right time to politicize the topic, and when is “too soon.” Obviously, guns are a political issue – in America, a constitutional issue – and people on different sides of the political spectrum have different ideas about what should be done. People who support gun control naturally point out that they believe this could have been avoided if America had more stringent gun laws. And gun supporters argue the opposite, that those laws wouldn’t stop this kind of rampage and that a gun can only be stopped by another gun. But when is the right time to start arguing about this? A lot of people argue that to make this type of pronouncement right after a tragedy is to show disrespect for the victims. Or as President Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney put it, there will be “a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day.”

Gun control supporters see this as a deliberate dodge, an attempt to put off actually doing something about the culture of gun violence. Apostate conservative David Frum wrote that “every day is the day to talk about gun control after his sarcastic Twitter reaction (“Obviously, we need to lower the age limit for concealed carry so toddlers can defend themselves”) was picked up by a pro-gun site and received many disapproving responses. Slate’s Allison Benedikt angrily asked “could you just let us all know: When would be a better day?” From this point of view, the right time to talk about it is right after a tragedy when everyone’s attention is focused on the issue. In a few days, the world’s attention will wander and it’ll be too late.

The likelihood that this is exactly what is going to happen – a few days will go by, there will be some words about guns and mental health facilities but not much action – may account for some of the numbness of the reaction. Other countries have had mass shootings, but they are often followed by legislative action, like the Dunblane massacre led to major gun-control legislation in Britain. In the U.S., that’s hardly even worth discussing; whether one is for or against such laws, they’re simply not going to happen. For one thing, the U.S. has gun rights in its Constitution, and the courts in recent years have been interpreting those rights quite broadly (which means that the familiar liberal argument about the Second Amendment – that it’s a narrow right applying only to militias – has very little legal force now). For another thing, the NRA sees most gun regulations as a slippery slope to an outright ban, and lobbies effectively against them. And finally, there is simply no national party interest in gun control.

The Democrats used to be the party of gun control, but they more or less gave it up in the ’90s when they decided that the perception of being soft on crime was hurting them. The only politicians who loudly support gun control are at the municipal level, like Mike Bloomberg. So the whole question of how to proceed is almost irrelevant. The influential liberal blogger Duncan Black struck a fairly typical note of despair: “I really don’t know what can be done given our current understanding of the constitution. There are a lot of guns out there, they’re easy to obtain, and I’m not really sure what could change that.” To the extent that anyone can think of any policy prescriptions, there might be a shift from gun control to stuff that could be at least somewhat bipartisan, like trying to improve mental health care. But the potential solutions seem small and slow compared to the magnitude of the tragedy. That may be why the reaction is so depressed. Whether you’re pro-gun or anti-gun, it seems almost like there’s nothing to be done.

However, there is the possibility that this could become a turning point – not in gun control, but in bringing back gun control as an issue. As Benedikt’s article suggests, one thing liberals can do is pressure their party, which for better or for worse is the Democrats, to actually stand up for gun control again. It may not be likely, but it is not impossible. The crude political risks of supporting gun control are not quite what they were in the ’80s: crime is way down now, which has reduced the bite of the “soft on crime” accusation. And the Democrats have become mostly the party of city dwellers, meaning that their supporters are disproportionately people who are more worried about someone else having a gun than about having their own guns taken away. Again, it’s not likely that anything will change; Carney’s attempt to declare the gun-control issue out of bounds for a day indicates that it’s not something they want to talk about. But this could be the start of a more organized campaign to pressure and shame Democrats into making this a priority again. That at least could work. There’s a sense that trying to pass gun control laws probably won’t work, and even if it did, they might not even help at this point. Getting Obama to support gun control at least would be something that could theoretically happen. And at times like this, doing anything, even something symbolic, may be more satisfying for many people than simply sitting in mute horror.

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