The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Admit it, Republicans. You don’t care how many Americans are killed by guns.

From left, Nirbisha Shrestha, Sophia Kennedy, top center, Josie Elowsky, bottom center, and Kaylynn Devivo, all freshmen at the University of Colorado at Boulder, embrace and cry together at the memorial at the King Soopers on Table Mesa in Boulder on March 23. (Rachel Woolf/For The Washington Post)

The first stage of any policy debate is to agree that there’s a problem that needs solving; once we do that, we can argue about its solution. But the two parties disagree on what constitutes a problem all the time. Republicans generally don’t think climate change is a problem, for instance, while Democrats don’t think overtaxation is a problem.

So as we’ve returned to our endless, repetitive cycle of mass shootings — the tip of the gun violence iceberg, the bulk of which is the day-to-day body count produced by men (almost always men) using their guns to kill — it’s time we force our elected Republicans to admit something.

They just don’t care.

It’s not that they want mass shootings, of course (though their allies in the gun industry stand to benefit from them, since mass shootings produce a surge in sales). They’d be happy if someone could wave a magic wand and stop the pile of dead bodies from growing ever higher. It just isn’t a problem they think is significant enough to address with any kind of policy initiative.

So between mass shootings — the progression of ordinary days in which 40 or 50 Americans are murdered with guns and even more use them to commit suicide (research has shown that having a gun in the home dramatically increases the risk of suicide) — they ignore the issue completely. The status quo is perfectly fine with them.

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If foreign terrorists with Arabic names killed over 19,000 Americans a year (the number of gun homicides in 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive), they’d be calling for the imposition of martial law and the suspension of half the Bill of Rights. But when that number of Americans are killed with guns in ordinary murders and mass shootings, it just doesn’t bother them that much.

Then what happens when there’s another mass shooting and they’re forced to talk about it? After a perfunctory nod to “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, they move into anti-gun-control mode. And their arguments against any regulation of firearms are so lame, so illogical, so positively idiotic that it’s almost as though they aren’t even trying.

That’s partly because the current legal regime is so hard to defend, and partly because they know they don’t really have to make a compelling case for the status quo. The combination of polarized partisan loyalty and the political geography that gives the GOP such an advantage means that your average Republican could go on Fox News and just grunt “Me love guns. Guns guns guns,” and the debate would not be lost.

Their actual comments are barely more sophisticated. “We have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) this week. “The answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers.”

Kennedy — who despite his Foghorn Leghorn routine is a very smart guy (he was on law review at the University of Virginia and attended Oxford) — surely knew that any middle-schooler could have shot down that argument. Drunken driving is indeed a big problem, which is one reason we regulate even sober drivers — you have to take a driving test and carry a license that allows the state to track you, we set up checkpoints to stop drunk drivers, and so on.

But Republicans know they don’t need to convince anyone they’re right. They just need to push the pro-gun button. “It doesn’t reduce crime,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said of modest measures proposed by Democrats, “it makes it worse,” because something like expanded background checks might make it less likely that the victims of the next mass shooting could return fire.

But the argument they fall back on again and again is that in a nation with approximately 400 million guns in civilian hands, any new regulation would leave your precious, fragile gun rights as riddled with holes as the latest mass shooting victim. As Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) put it, Democrats are using the Boulder shooting “to further erode Second Amendment rights.”

That’s right, further erode those already-eroded gun rights. Lummis was endorsed last year by both the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America, which is so extreme it considers the NRA a bunch of weak-kneed apologists.

And that’s what it comes down to for Republicans: Gun violence may be bad, but it’s the price we must pay. “In the dialogue about gun control, we rarely consider how many Americans are united in their advocacy and enjoyment of this right,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). You, on the other hand, may derive enjoyment from not getting shot at the supermarket. But that’s just too bad.

To be clear, with some important exceptions, elected Democrats have not exactly been heroic on this issue. The solutions they offer are usually limited in ambition and effect. They often let their advocacy languish. It’s perhaps understandable that given the stranglehold the gun lobby has on the Republican Party, Democrats sometimes succumb to despair about ever making our gun laws less insane.

But at least they see the latest mass shooting, the hundreds of Americans killed with guns every week, the thousands killed every year, and say “We should try to do something about this.” If only we could all agree on that, it would be a start.

Read more:

Max Boot: Republicans want to make voting hard and gun ownership easy

Helaine Olen: What connects America’s mass shootings? Easy access to guns.

The Post’s View: The Senate can choose to save lives — or to do nothing on gun control, again

E.J. Dionne Jr.: We can’t let the gun imperialists win again

Paul Waldman: How the Supreme Court limits our national debate — and action — on gun violence

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