Republicans and Gun Control: A Sad Mantra
Ben Carson, pictured here in late September, and other Republican Presidential candidates have offered reactions to the Umpqua mass shooting that range from offensive to inconsequential.
Over the past few days, as family members of the nine people killed by a gunman at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, prepared to bury their loved ones, many of the G.O.P. candidates for President have been offering their thoughts on what to do—or, rather, what not to do—about gun violence.
Let’s start with Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who is currently running second, behind Donald Trump, in the G.O.P. polls. Participating in an exchange on Facebook on Monday night, Carson recalled removing bullets from gunshot victims, and added, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” On Tuesday morning, Carson went on Fox News and said, “It’s the person behind the gun. Guns don’t kill people.” He didn’t stop there. Asked what he would do if a gunman walked up to him, put a gun to his head, and asked him what his religion was, Carson replied, “I’m glad you asked that question. Because not only would I probably not coöperate with them, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’ ”
It’s hard to believe that anybody, let alone a politician running for national office, would insult the victims of a massacre by suggesting that their response had been inadequate. About the most that can be said for Carson is that he isn’t a professional politician: he’s a novice. So is Trump, who, on Tuesday, described himself as a “very big Second Amendment person,” and suggested that the problem in Umpqua was that no one on the scene, apart from the twenty-six-year-old shooter, was armed. (At least one student, an Army veteran, was carrying a gun, a few buildings away.) Trump also said that he opposed a ban on assault weapons—a proposal that he expressed support for in 2000.
But, surely, the serious candidates—the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios—must have said something more consequential. Not exactly.
Bush’s “stuff happens” line, which he uttered in South Carolina on Friday, has already entered the political lexicon and provided a gift to the Democrats. Rather than rehashing the debate about whether the remark was taken out of context (it wasn’t), let’s examine what Bush has said since then. After all, he’s had five more days to clarify how he would tackle gun violence. On Monday, he released a new campaign video, which said nothing about what happened in Oregon. On Tuesday, he published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, which also didn’t bring up the massacre or its aftermath. Then, on Tuesday night, Bush delivered a long speech at a Republican dinner in Iowa. Once again, he made no mention of Umpqua or guns.
Perhaps that is not surprising. The recipient of an “A+” rating from the National Rifle Association, Bush, during his time as governor of Florida, vigorously opposed efforts to expand gun control, and signed into law the notorious “Stand Your Ground” law. Marco Rubio, who is now leading Bush in most polls, is perhaps a more interesting case. Back in 2000, when he was running for a seat in Florida’s House of Representatives, Rubio said that he supported “reasonable restrictions” on gun sales. And after the Sandy Hook massacre, in December, 2012, Rubio’s spokesman said that Rubio would support measures to keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill.
Since then, though, Rubio has backtracked and cozied up to the N.R.A. While campaigning in Iowa on Friday, he said, “Criminals don’t follow gun laws. Only law-abiding people follow gun laws.” On Tuesday, appearing on NBC’s “Today” show, he said, “The laws that many are proposing would have done nothing to prevent these attacks.” Rather than focussing on measures like expanding background checks for gun purchases, “the country should examine mental illness.”
Many of the other G.O.P. candidates took a similar line. “The problem is mental illness and not necessarily gun registration or gun ownership,” Rand Paul said in a radio interview. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Chris Christie told George Stephanopoulos, “I’m very concerned about the mental-health side of this.” On CNN’s “At This Hour,” Mike Huckabee said, “Do we need to do a better job in mental health? You bet we do.”
What about Carly Fiorina, who promotes herself as a can-do, problem-solving leader? Couldn’t she say something different and less predictable? No. Fiorina, too, is a loyal supporter of the N.R.A., whose annual meeting she addressed earlier this year in a campaign-style video, boasting about her husband’s concealed-carry permits and saying, “When government takes away our guns, we are headed down a dangerous path.” On Friday, Fiorina criticized President Obama’s impassioned call for action, describing it as “premature, at best,” and “at worst, a really unfortunate politicization of this tragedy.”
That was the pretty much the same thing Fiorina said in June, after Obama reacted to the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. In fact, this is now the standard Republican/N.R.A. line. Each one of these massacres is regrettable and demands further study. But anybody who states the blatantly obvious—that countries with strict guns laws don’t have this problem—is politicizing the issue; they should either zip it, or confine themselves to expressing concern over mental illness.
Of course, as HBO’s John Oliver pointed out over the weekend, talking about mental illness is largely a diversion, which distorts the facts about gun violence and serves to preserve the status quo. In 2013, during the Obama Administration’s effort to get some relatively minor gun-control laws through Congress, the White House proposed increasing the funding for mental-health programs and other initiatives designed to identify and help people who are potentially dangerous. Republicans in the Senate blocked the gun-control measures anyway, and no doubt they’d do the same this year if Obama were to send over a similar bill. On this issue, elected G.O.P. officials aren’t interested in reason or compromise. They are interested, primarily, in avoiding a challenge in the next election from an N.R.A.-backed candidate.
In a sense, there’s nothing new here. For decades now, the N.R.A. and the rest of the gun lobby have had a grip on the Republican Party. But as the number of gun massacres has increased the consequences of this political capture have become harder to ignore. Now, in the full glare of a Presidential election, they cannot be avoided. Rather than engaging in an honest effort to address gun violence and prevent more senseless carnage, practically every G.O.P. candidate has been reduced to repeating a mantra that many of them, surely, cannot fully believe.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty sad. Sad for them, and sadder still for the country.
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