Jeb Bush was heavily criticized Friday for saying “stuff happens” in response to Thursday’s deadly mass shooting. Speaking about the tragedy in Oregon during a forum Friday he remarked: “I had this challenge as governor because we had — look, stuff happens,” he said at a forum in South Carolina. “There’s always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something, and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”
He pushed back on Twitter and in other comments, doubling down.
“Things happen all the time,” he suggested to a reporter. “Things. Is that better?”
The Wheel of Gaffes is cruel and prone to taking things out of context. But this is one time where it doesn’t help. Jeb(!) is enunciating a principle here, and that principle, in this case, is not a good one.
Here’s the larger context of his remarks, as he kept clarifying.
Bush said, “Tragedies. A child drowned in a pool and the impulse is to pass a law that puts fencing around pools. Well, it may not change it. Or you have a car accident and the impulse is to pass a law that deals with that unique event. And the cumulative effect of this is, in some cases, you don’t solve the problem by passing the law, and you’re imposing on large numbers of people burdens that make it harder for our economy to grow, make it harder to protect liberty.”
In general, it’s not a bad point. When something awful happens, our impulse is to do something. When channeled into blood drives and outpourings of support, this is an unmitigated good. But the conversion of the impulse to Do Something into legislation is a thornier proposition. It does not always achieve its intended effect. We get laws with the first names of victims attached; we get long lists of restrictions; not all of these things are wise or would even have prevented the tragedy that inspired them in the first place.
The idea that you can legislate your way out of tragedy gives a lot of mileage to conservative comics — all these helmets and padding we insist on everyone wearing have made for a generation of weaklings, or something. (Ho! Ho!) More regulation is not always the solution to every ailment.
In general, we’re a litigious people. This is why, on a less serious scale, we have signs warning that Hot Coffee Is Hot and Stoves Are Not For Sitting. Look at every set of office policies, as the joke goes, and you will see a record of things that went disastrously wrong at the Christmas party. Bans on improper use of the photocopier, sending e-mail-forwards inviting everyone to one-man shows that do not exist, tying a cat to a balloon and releasing it into the break room or filling senior management’s office with goldfish — these prohibitions are a testimony to the richness of the human imagination under the influence of eggnog.
As Jeb points out, we cannot prevent all bad things from happening. We have to accept that some awful things are unpreventable and that efforts to prevent them do more harm than good. Stuff, as Jeb said, happens.
All well and good. Thus far, we agree.
The toll of deaths from gun violence is not one of those “unpreventable” things. This is not a fact of life that we have to build into our assumptions. Guns are not hurricanes. There is nothing inevitable about them. We are the only ones with a problem like this. And we should not simply hunker down and hold our families closer (as they are always urging in these too-frequent speeches) and wait for the storm to pass. This is not one of those lamentable accidents of life that we cannot do anything about.
Common-sense gun laws are not some crazy attempt to stay a natural force that we humans are powerless to counteract. This is not the equivalent of putting a fence around a pool in the hope of preventing pool fatalities — although, when you come right down to it, why not put a fence around a pool? Other countries, with more stringent gun laws, do not have gun violence problems on the scale we do. This is not something we have to accept.
A particularly illuminating example in the president’s consoling but angry speech on Thursday was seat belts. In 1966, we decided that too many people were dying in car accidents. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act passed, setting safety standards for vehicles and requiring car manufacturers to build in safety belts. We could have said, “Well, with tremendous freedom to travel across the country at great speeds comes a certain amount of risk. Crashes are sad, but what can we do to respond to them other than hold our families closer?”
But we said: No. This situation is not like that. This is one case where we can apply the tools at our disposal and make broadly acceptable regulations that make everyone safer.
The remark was not as insensitive as it sounded. I’ll give Bush that.
But the conclusion was still a problem.