Mass shootings are a normal facet of American life at this point. Without some twist, like victims from law enforcement or small school children, they no longer even command a day’s attention from major television networks. It’s not even new to have a member of Congress as a victim. The ubiquity of gun violence in America renders fresh violence unremarkable. That effect is compounded by the chorus of preverbal ostriches who squawk at the mere mention that maybe we should discuss solutions to a problem that only happens in a country where anyone who wants a gun can get one cheaply, quickly, and easily.
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For precisely those reasons, we should ignore the scolds. Not only is it acceptable to politicize gun violence; it is necessary. Acts of mass violence are inherently political, and this particular shooting was political long before the suspect, James Hodgkinson, arrived at the Alexandria playing field this morning. Regulating the ubiquity of guns is a political question. In a nation where there are more guns than people, the distribution of firearms and resources to protect against gun violence cannot be divorced from politics.
Rep. Mo Brooks, who is on the ballot in a special election for Jeff Sessions’ seat less than nine weeks from now, was the first voice we heard from a witness’ perspective this morning. He was on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and quoted in every publication with reporters at the scene of the assault, almost immediately, regaling his own bravery and quick action. I first met Brooks while working as a campaign staffer for his opponent in his first race in 2010. Earlier that year, I was on campus at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a campus Brooks now represents, when Amy Bishop opened fire in an academic building, shooting six people and killing three.
I’m an Army combat veteran. I’ve qualified to shoot everything from a 9mm pistol to a fully automatic grenade launcher. I’ve owned several personal firearms. I generally enjoy training with, firing, and even cleaning guns. But I’ll also never forget the sight of dozens of police cruisers speeding across my campus, pulling Kevlar vests and shotguns out of their trunks, entering the building where I studied algebra, physics, and biology. Later they wheeled out lifeless bodies.
I understand what Brooks might be going through right now. Nevertheless, mere hours after the shooting, Brooks refused to entertain any idea that maybe we have a problem with guns in America. It’s notable that Brooks has a rating of 93% from the NRA and has received thousands in contributions from group.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was quick to echo an unverified report that the attack was unequivocally partisan. Rep. Chris Collins of New York blamed the attack on Democrats. House Republicans immediately canceled a hearing scheduled for this morning with gun groups promoting the relaxation of gun laws, surely understanding the political dynamics of such a hearing today. The president’s son pinned the blame on the same “NY elites” his father campaigned against.
Historically, mass shootings have been used as political opportunities. The NRA actually used the slaughter of kindergartners and educators at Sandy Hook to propose a program for putting more guns in schools (and selling more guns, conveniently). South Carolina relaxed its concealed carry regulations in response to the racially motivated Charleston massacre carried out by Dylann Roof. The Arizona legislature approved bills allowing guns on college campuses and in public buildings in the wake of an assassination attempt against then-Rep. Gabby Giffords. Those Arizona bills were eventually vetoed by the state’s Republican governor, but turning proposals into law isn’t always the point. Rather, the NRA politicizes collective grief to advance its narrative to the benefit of those who would commit acts of violence. We already know the outcome.
Before lunch today, another mass shooting was reported in San Francisco. The “above the fray” approach clearly doesn’t work and hasn’t for decades. Politicization of issues of public safety is part of democracy, regardless of how offended the NRA’s members feign to be. As forces for the status quo simultaneously politicize today’s shooting and decry the politicization of shootings, the majority of Americans who want common sense gun safety laws have an obligation to forcefully wade into the inherently political discussion.