Photo-Illustration: Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images
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The Conservative Playbook for Deflecting Anger After Mass Shootings

Ignoring the obvious connection between gun deaths and lax gun laws in three easy steps.

Photo-Illustration: Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

The United States has dramatically more lax regulation of firearms than any peer nation, and as a result has far more gun ownership and, consequently, astronomical rates of gun violence. If you happen to be either a Second Amendment absolutist or a Republican who defers out of conservative-movement allyship to pro-gun absolutists, that last fact is simply an unavoidable cost.

Yes, enhanced mental-illness treatment or beefed-up security in sensitive areas like schools might make some small incremental difference. But on the whole, your ideological or political commitments treat massive levels of gun violence as the cost of doing business.

Conservative thinking on guns is shaped by that uncomfortable reality. Usually it can be resolved by ignoring the problem, which — given that most gun deaths attract little media attention — is generally confined to background noise. The tension is brought into sharp relief by mass-shooting events, which concentrate media attention for brief periods of time and force conservatives to articulate a position.

These responses tend to follow a script, which has been on display in the wake of the most recent mass murder at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

One element of the responses is to insist the events are nonpolitical, and any efforts to use them to highlight the need for a policy response is a breach of decorum. “Only two and a half minutes into President Joe Biden’s address following the horrific elementary-school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the unity president injected divisive and frankly irrelevant politics into what should have been a somber moment of weeping with those who weep,” complains Kylee Zempel. “Mourning is a critical part of humanity. It’s part of why every society has some sort of burial ceremony,” adds Jesse Kelly. “The gun-grabbing that takes place after a mass shooting in this country has done more to rip this country apart than anything else.”

If you imagined a liberal policy that regularly produced horrific scenes of mass death — suppose that Democrats motivated by open-borders ideology permitted armed ISIS members to enter the country unimpeded — Republicans would surely not demand the aftermath of their regular murders be free of political recriminations. The demand to refrain from politicization is an implicit recognition that mass-murder events highlight aspects of their agenda that are difficult to explain.

After Beto O’Rourke crashed a news conference by Greg Abbott — replete with talking points defending his policies — National Review’s Rich Lowry called the move “classless,” while his colleague Nate Hochman described it as “incomprehensibly gross.” The demands for decorum are themselves political, of course.

A second method is to make the case for futility by insisting that not every proposed gun-control measure would end every instance of gun violence. School shootings are a subset of mass shootings, and mass shootings are a small subset of America’s staggering gun-violence epidemic. Obviously, a social epidemic as enormous as America’s spate of gun murders defies easy solution. There are many solutions short of total confiscations that could mitigate the crisis, but most of them would only prevent some murders.

Thus there is an easy trick of picking apart the responses and insisting not every constituent reform would prevent every single murder. “I can’t assure the American people there’s any law we can pass that would have stopped this shooting,” said Lindsey Graham. Even if that highly debatable claim were true, there are certainly laws that could prevent some shootings. But Graham elided that obvious fact.

National Review’s Jim Geraghty argues that tougher background checks would not have stopped the Uvalde shooter, who had no criminal record, restraining order, or record of complaint. His colleague Charles C.W. Cooke chimes in to argue that none of Abbott’s pro-gun measures specifically enabled the Uvalde shooting.

These narrow claims may be true, but their purpose is to elide the broader reality that there is obviously a connection between America’s extraordinary permissive gun-control regimen and its extraordinarily high rates of gun violence. The way this game works is to point out that Solution A would not prevent Episode X, and Solution B would not prevent Episode Y, and thus imply no solutions exist whatsoever.

The final step is to locate solutions outside of gun control and blame Democrats for opposing them. “Democrats, unfortunately, are unwilling to talk past their base’s gun control desires,” writes Erick Erickson. “So now, instead of trying to solve the problem of gun violence, they will use it to campaign on — letting the problem fester in order to mobilize their base.”

Erickson is echoing a widespread conservative assumption that Democrats are merely pretending to care about gun violence. “To this administration, the Texas victims are not much more than a stick with which to beat their opponents and an opportunity to capitalize on their vendetta against firearms and those who value the rights of law-abiding Americans to bear them,” writes Zempel. “That [Biden] would make comments like this tells you he doesn’t care at all about what happened. He doesn’t care about the victims. He doesn’t care about their families,” insists Sean Davis.

The Federalist has already thrown online one column blaming the attack on aid to Ukraine (headline: “Sandy Hook Proved The Need To Enhance K-12 Security. Congress Armed Ukraine Instead.”) and another proposing homeschooling as the remedy (headline: “Tragedies Like The Texas Shooting Make A Somber Case For Homeschooling”). That “somber” is a subtle touch, no doubt reflecting the need for some level of taste when capitalizing on a murder to propose eliminating public education (“Name-calling, blame-shifting, and calls for gun restrictions fill social media in the public’s quest to find a solution,” the author writes. “But to protect the most precious, innocent lives among us, parents must educate their kids at home.”).

These kinds of exertions are extreme even by the standards of the right-wing media. They are the product of the right’s keen grasp of the intense but fleeting dangers posed by a televised display of the costs of their agenda. Once the murder has left the headlines, normality will resume.

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