Opinion writer

“This isn’t a guns situation,” said President Trump, when he was asked to comment on the latest in our long string of mass shootings, this one in Sutherland Springs, Tex.

As predictable as the rising of the sun, Republican politicians who have fought so hard against even the most basic measures to limit the bloodshed went to their Twitter accounts and the television cameras to send out their thoughts and prayers, and insist that the last thing we should be doing right now is talking about guns. Or, heaven forfend, “politicizing” the issue in this tragic moment.

That’s what we’ve come to expect from them. But it’s time we demand something more. We know they aren’t going to do anything, not even get behind measures such as universal background checks that have the support of 9 in 10 Americans. So at the very least, we should insist that they be honest about what they believe.

And what they believe is this: The unceasing, relentless, mind-numbing carnage that we in the United States experience because of our gun fetish? Not just the mass shootings — which make up a tiny portion of all those killed with guns — but the day-in, day-out death toll? The pile of bodies, the broken families, the misery and death and despair? Our fellow citizens getting murdered in church, at concerts, at the movies, in nightclubs, in malls, in school? Gun advocates, a group that includes almost every elected Republican, simply do not think it’s a problem.


(John Sommers II/Reuters)

Let me be clear on what I mean by this. Surely many Republicans are personally horrified by mass shootings and even by daily gun carnage. And sometimes Republicans do offer various readings of this problem that might point to solutions — some genuinely do see this as a mental health problem, for instance. But even in these cases, Republicans do not propose serious solutions to the problem as they’ve identified it.

Presumably there’s some number of gun deaths that would lead them to propose genuine and meaningful solutions — maybe 500,000 a year, or 1 million, or 10 million — but whatever that level is, 35,000 just isn’t high enough for them.

Just watch Texas Gov. Greg Abbott explain that “killing is illegal,” then go on to note that there are also incidents in which people kill with trucks and knives, and such murders happen even in places where there aren’t many guns in private hands. This is an argument you hear repeated often: We see yet another mass shooting, and Republicans rush to point out that it’s possible to kill people without guns. It’s as though you turned on the light in your kitchen to find thousands of cockroaches covering the floor, and I said, “Look, I know a guy across town who once saw an ant in his basement. So there’s really nothing you can do.”

Asked directly what to do about gun violence, Abbott said this:

“The important thing is that if you go back to early times of this world, to the times of yesterday and last week, evil exists in this world. I’m going to use the words of the citizens of Sutherland Springs themselves and that is, they want to work together for love to overcome evil, and you do that by working with God.”

I’ll translate for you. What does Abbott want to do about gun violence? Nothing. He wants to do nothing.

Republicans do frequently say they want to improve the mental health system. But there are people with mental illnesses in every country in the world, and yet we’re unique among industrialized nations in our level of gun violence. And regardless, if they mean what they say, now that they have complete control of the government, Republicans must have been working hard on improvements to the mental health system, right? No, they haven’t — other than trying to take away millions of people’s health insurance and therefore their access to mental health care.

Actually, Trump did sign one law related to mental health. It revoked a regulation enacted under the Obama administration that made it more difficult for some people with mental illnesses to buy guns.

Let’s make an analogy: Automobiles kill around the same number of people as guns, but since we collectively believe that modern life as we know it would be impossible without cars, we do everything we can think of to make them safer. We build them with technology intended to minimize the carnage: seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, new features that alert you when you stray from your lane or your eyelids get heavy. We construct laws and physical systems — speed limits, pedestrian crosswalks, bike lanes — to make them safer. When a new facet of the problem emerges, like texting while driving, we pass laws and undertake public education campaigns to attempt to address it. We require everyone who has a car to register it with the government and prove they can operate it safely. And within a few years we will completely transform the way we use them because a safer option — self-driving cars — is rapidly being developed.

But the gun industry, the NRA and their allies in Congress have succeeded in ensuring that there will be no new measures of any kind at the federal level to increase gun safety. They even managed to keep the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence, which is what you do when you are determined that no one be allowed to treat it as a problem that might have solutions.

We should certainly try to understand why this particular mass shooting happened and what might have stopped it. According to early reports — and acknowledging that they might change as we get more information — the suspect’s court-martial, sentence and discharge from the Air Force should have barred him from buying a gun, yet he was able to purchase the military-style rifle he used at a sporting goods store in San Antonio, checking a box on the form saying he had no disqualifying criminal history.

But even if a full understanding of what happened in Texas might point us to some holes in the background check system, I promise you that Republicans will resist any attempt to patch them. They might say they want to, but they’ll only say it for a few days until the story fades. You might remember that after the Las Vegas shooting — which happened all of five weeks ago — a number of Republicans said that perhaps we should regulate “bump stocks,” the accessory the killer used to turn his semiautomatic rifles into functionally automatic rifles. There was even a piece of legislation introduced with a few Republican co-sponsors. And you know what happened to that? Nothing.

So perhaps whenever a Republican politician or gun advocate goes on television or radio to talk about this interview, they should be asked a simple question: “Do you believe that gun violence is a problem we need to address?” If they say “yes,” the next question should be, “What exactly do you want to do about it?” Let them prove that the answer is something more than “nothing.”