There is a way of thinking — one that tends to comfort the comfortable and leave the afflicted in extended misery.
It's a way of dividing every vexing, complicated, long-running but slow-moving matter of public debate into one of three categories, then getting about the more ordinary business of one's day.
First, there are ideas and proposals championed by the powerful that generally have a relatively easy path from idea to law. Second, there are issues that have somehow, some way managed to reach the critical mass necessary for change. Usually that's because the economic or reputation-related costs have, in that order of importance, simply grown too large.
Then, there are those matters that are beyond practical political reach. Suffering, death, danger and maltreatment aside, a policy solution to these problems simply has no real path, no viability at all.
And in this moment, it would seem that any and all policy related to guns would belong in that third group. Gun control — or any discussion of a coordinated effort to stem the tide of gun deaths that set this country apart from almost every other industrialized nation — is going nowhere. It's a reality we acknowledge regularly on this very blog, most recently on Saturday morning, the day the New York Times saw fit to devote its first front-page editorial in 95 years to gun control.
To hear political insiders tell it, no matter the ebb and flow of public opinion, the carnage of the nation's latest mass shooting or the almost-unnoticed toll of individual gun deaths, this is an issue that the National Rifle Association "owns." It is an issue that gun-rights advocates have effectively won and isn't really even worth discussing in all that much detail.
But to stop there is to effectively accept that there is no point in ever raising alarms about an issue that will require confrontation with well-funded, influential and powerful political forces. It is also just incredibly glib.
Reasonable people can disagree about the availability and volume of guns in a free society. But understand this: In the decade between 2003 and 2013 — the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — 337,135 people in the United States died because of a homicide, suicide or accident caused by a gun. And owning a gun or being in possession of one does not reliably help people remain unharmed. Study after study has found that, including this one funded by the National Institutes of Health. Those are just the facts. Nothing more.
Yet, witness the response to the New York Times's front-page editorial about the toll of gun violence and the absence of political action. There are those who have taken to social media, to their blogs and to the airwaves with all their frustrated might. But few have a response that does not rely on either an NRA talking point or the scientifically debunked idea that mental illness is the only issue in need of attention here. These folks are outraged and on fire.
They have lambasted one of the nation's finest papers for daring to do what the founders intended. As Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, told me Saturday, a free press's primary roles are to inform, to stoke debate and to feed the marketplace of ideas. (The institute is the programming and outreach arm of the Newseum, a news and media history organization.)
Newspapers have been and are likely to continue to be one of the most reliable sources of factual reporting, as well as reasoned and fact-centered opinion and analysis. People can turn to them, click on them or turn away. But sometimes, to make plain that an issue has crossed out of the realm of the purely political and into the arena of crisis, newspapers have, on rare occasions, moved opinions off the editorial page and on to the front page, Policinski said.
That's what the New York Journal American did in 1951 when President Harry Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his duties, according to an April analysis compiled by Sharon Shahid, a Newseum researcher and managing editor. That's what the Arizona Republic did in 2010 to call out the absence of action on immigration reform. That's what the Indianapolis Star did in March, when it published an editorial calling on state lawmakers to address the door that a state law opened to widespread discrimination. And that's what the New York Times did Saturday, for only the second time in almost a century.
Now, an arguable step or three down on the outrage scale — but perhaps a notch out on the continuum of ideas most readily embraced by the privileged — are those that complained that the New York Times's editorial reflects a kind of disgusting political opportunism or that it will only deepen public polarization. These people don't agree with the content of the editorial. They don't agree with its placement. They think it will give those who distrust The New York Times new reason to disregard its daily reporting.
These are things that can be most wholeheartedly embraced only if one of the following apply: One has both a weapons stockpile large enough and a trigger finger unquestionably fast enough to rightfully fear no one and no pervasive gun violence trend. Or one belongs to that group of Americans who show up on the news after some violent event and say, with real but perhaps not well-explored feeling, that this "was not supposed to happen here."
Many people who have lived in a neighborhood besieged by gun violence, those who have lost a loved one in a single shooting or a gun-facilitated mass murder very likely read that New York Times editorial or listened to and scrolled through all the commentary and wondered, "What is the big deal?" Or, more likely, "Why has it taken so long for the nation to focus its much-divided attention here?"
Policy reforms and debate are one response to compelling events, to new research and to tragedy in any functioning and healthy democracy. One wonders what anyone arguing against any discussion of gun control at this moment would have thought of the workplace safety laws that followed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. What might they have made of the effort to make lynching a federal felony crime after incredibly brave Americans such as Ida B. Wells made the gruesome handiwork of lynch mobs plain?
Was this work also gauche, imprudent, a waste of time? These issues were polarizing. There were powerful, well-organized and deep-pocketed forces opposed to reforms. And at points, there were also lone champions, activists and voices who refused to abandon their cries for change.
Reform might be difficult, complicated or unlikely. Debate about it may rally those on either side of the cause. But that really is not a valid reason to abandon all efforts to create change.
This is a country in which some of my own great-great grandparents were born slaves, where poor children once toiled — legally — seven days a week, and women could not vote. Changing these things was, for long periods, also unthinkable.
To make those changes possible, someone had to first advance arguments in favor of reform.