It’s not that America can’t stop its bloody sequence of mass killings. It’s that it lacks the national cohesion and common will to do so.
The elementary school massacre in Texas underscored that the world’s most powerful nation can’t even ensure that its most vulnerable – young children – are safe from violent death at their desks. A more stunning failure of government would be hard to find.
A deep political and cultural estrangement on guns – caused principally by the right’s blocking of efforts from Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass even modest safety measures – is boiling up again over Tuesday’s shooting.
Mass killings are a sickeningly familiar background noise to daily life in the US, but the latest school bloodbath, which killed 19 children and two teachers, came as an especially devastating blow. It rekindled the sense of dread millions of American parents feel when say goodbye to their kids at school drop off. And it will further scar a generation of students haunted by the perpetual fear of a school shooting – a frightful vision for young minds that was only alleviated by Covid-19 pandemic virtual learning, which traumatized many of them in other ways.
The carnage in Uvalde, Texas, was so horrible that even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose nation has suffered appalling atrocities and war crimes since the Russian invasion, felt compelled to express his shock and condolences.
At a time of national angst, America’s fractured politics is predictably falling short, and failing to overcome the curses of personal political ambition and gridlock.
Familiar and futile rituals following mass shootings are playing out – “the thoughts and prayers” for victims, Democratic calls for more gun safety measures and Republican denials that such killings are inevitable in a society swamped by deadly firearms.
But the bloodshed – perpetrated by an 18-year-old who legally bought semi-automatic rifles in a state where he was deemed too immature to buy a beer – is exposing the political paralysis over ending mass killings as never before.
People marveled after a hauntingly similar massacre in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, why not even the murders of 6- and 7-year-olds in class could lead to gun reforms.
No one would make such a comment now. A blood-soaked decade has rendered the country’s politics more feral and divisive and even less capable of compromises that might save lives. Conservative power and the Senate filibuster have stalled multiple attempts at overhauling firearm laws, which would surely have saved some lives – despite a recent Democratic monopoly on elected institutions in Washington. Regular shootings, like the slaughter at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017 or a 2018 high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, have sparked outrage and calls for change but failed to break the inertia of Washington politics.
In fact, momentum appears to be heading in the opposite direction. The right’s ascendency on the issue could be further underscored if the conservative-majority Supreme Court further loosens gun laws in a pending landmark Second Amendment case.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday night returned from an Asia trip that started after one mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, and ended as news of the Texas carnage reached Air Force One. “Why do we keep letting this happen?” he asked.
The answer to his anguished cry was borne out in an emotional confrontation in Texas on Wednesday between Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
O’Rourke stood up and disrupted a news conference being given by Abbott and other Texas officials and elected leaders called to provide an update on the shooting.
“This is on you, until you choose to do something different,” O’Rourke told the governor, who has enthusiastically gutted gun laws and whom he will try to unseat in November’s election.
Abbott, meanwhile, deflected from his own state’s record of mass shootings by resorting to a familiar conservative and racially tinged attack on Chicago, saying its record of gun violence showed strict firearms laws don’t work. (Chicago officials responded by blaming imported weapons from states with lax gun laws.)
The exchange teased out the massive gulf between Republicans and Democrats on guns, which has made even minor proposed legislative deals favored by the public – on issues like expanding background checks – impossible.
O’Rourke’s actions might have been seen as a stunt by the Republican officials. Uvalde Republican Mayor Don McLaughlin, for example, called him a “sick son of a b*tch.” But they reflect Democratic despair over the party’s failure to enact gun safety measures through legislative means – due to GOP obstruction in Congress and the unwillingness of some in their own party to change Senate rules.
Republican leaders like Abbott have yet to face the politically unpalatable possibility that loosening gun laws for political gain with their base could make such massacres more likely.
The Texas school shooting has underscored, again, how the first reaction among conservatives to a mass killing is to call for more guns – armed guards at schools, for example, or even for teachers to carry them.
The party has spent years under the thrall of the gun lobby and political candidates like ex-President Donald Trump, who falsely warn base voters that any form of limited legislative overhaul will involve the seizure of their weapons. No major GOP leader has ever tried to prepare the base for compromise.
The Second Amendment has been used by politicians like Trump as a tool in the wider narrative that alleges that coastal, racially diverse and liberal elites want to expunge traditional, White American heartland life and culture. The result is that there is no future for any Republican who challenges that orthodoxy.
Part of the tragedy here is that the vast majority of gun owners in the United States obey the law and only a tiny fraction are involved in shootings. Many see owning a weapon as a fundamental rite of passage. And the country’s quintessentially individualistic streak means there is less focus on the collective good, as there might be in a developed European society, for instance.
But there’s little discussion in the GOP about what happens when the expansive exercise of such rights conflicts with the fundamental unalienable rights of others. For example, what is more important – the desire of a gun owner to buy a high-powered weapon that would be appropriate for a battlefield, or the right of a 6-year-old student to stay alive and go to school free from fear?
Republicans always tend to try to shut down talk of gun reforms after mass shootings by saying it’s disrespectful to the victims to play politics. But that is a political act in itself.
“You see politicians try to politicize it; you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. That doesn’t work. It’s not effective. It doesn’t prevent crime,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Republicans adopted a remarkably defeatist attitude in arguing it was futile to try to stop massacres.
“At the end of day, you’re arguing about what they’re using to commit this, and the truth of matter is these people are going to commit these horrifying crimes – whether they have to use another weapon to do it – they’re going to figure out a way to do it,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said.
Florida’s other GOP senator, Rick Scott, meanwhile, told CNN that banning AR-15s, the fast-firing weapon used by the Texas shooter, would be wrong: “I think we have in our Constitution our Second Amendment rights, and we shouldn’t take away rights for law-abiding citizens.”
While the Constitution does enshrine the right to bear arms, nothing in the document says Americans are authorized to use deadly modern weapons of war.
Even the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon, in a landmark 2008 opinion that cemented the individual right to own a gun, argued that the right was not a right to “keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is exceedingly hawkish when it comes to avenging threats to Americans from abroad, adopted a passive position that Washington can do nothing to stop mass killings.
“This man had no criminal record. He shot his grandmother in the face. He lawfully purchased a gun,” he said. “I can’t think of a law that would have stopped this particular shooting.”
Graham ignored several possible approaches raised in response to the Texas massacre – for instance, a ban on people under age 21 buying guns or a revival of a lapsed assault weapons ban, which could possibly prevent future horrors.
But his comment underscored the deeply limited field of vision and stifled debate that Republicans allow themselves – for political reasons – in such moments.
It’s no wonder that Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly – whose wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was critically wounded after being shot in the head in 2011 – had this to say on Wednesday.
“It’s f**king nuts to do nothing about this.”