Nobody asked National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch to speculate on who might enjoy mass shootings, but in a speech given at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Thursday, she did anyway. “Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it,” Loesch said. “I’m not saying that you love the tragedy,” she clarified unhelpfully, “But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold.”
Loesch herself was happy to serve as a regular contributor to a major media outlet such as CNN, of which she remarked in 2011: “I’m excited to be working with CNN and am appreciative of their efforts to showcase diverse political thought on their airwaves. I look forward to the discussions.” One wonders if Loesch numbered among those in the “legacy media” who “love mass shootings” at that time, or if she was perhaps grateful for the opportunity to help the public think through and learn about these terrible crimes while deeply disturbed by the crimes themselves, as I suspect most in the media are. But maybe not. It’s all just business, after all, and reminding the public that the media is comprised of for-profit companies is a go-to conservative tactic in the Trump era. Under normal circumstances — if instead of a shooting, we were talking about a case of corruption or graft — one might have dismissed Loesch’s you-love-it shtick as a boring page out of the president’s playbook: If you can’t beat the rap, beat the media.
But gun advocates’ desperate will to believe that their political opponents are actually benefiting from mass murder has become especially pronounced since the Valentine’s Day killings in Parkland, Fla. With some students using the nation’s focus on their school to lobby legislators to make meaningful moves on gun control, a smattering of voices on the right circulated conspiracy theories claiming that the students are “crisis actors” hired by shady political interests to do their liberal bidding. (Donald Trump Jr. recently liked two tweets claiming that one of the Parkland students is a pawn of the FBI in a play against the president, for example.) In the more extreme form of these delusions, the shootings in question either never happened or were planned by the government; in the less extreme versions, the shootings happened, but the responses were engineered by shadowy figures in power to manipulate the public into giving up their guns.
What Loesch has in common with the more overt conspiracy theorists is a political version of the psychological condition the Freudians call “projection,” in which one attributes their own uncomfortable thoughts or impulses to others. To be clear, I don’t think, per Loesch, that anyone loves mass shootings; I trust that the overwhelming majority of people, no matter their politics, are horrified and devastated by them. But it is worth taking seriously the questions Loesch and right-wing conspiracy theorists raise: Who actually benefits from mass shootings?
First, the obvious and vulgar: The firearms industry tends to benefit from mass murders, especially when it appears to the public that there’s a credible possibility that gun reform might result. Before Donald Trump took office, mass shootings tended to trigger enormous spikes in gun purchases. This is why investors tend to bet on guns after these tragedies make headlines; after the 2015 killings in San Bernardino, Calif., for instance, gun manufacturers’ stock prices jumped. Now that Republicans control the presidency and Congress, consumers don’t seem to be as nervous about the possibility of losing their right to build their own arsenals. This means, perversely, that the likelier gun-control legislation seems, the better it is to be in the gun-manufacturing business when mass shootings take place.
Likewise, the NRA itself often benefits monetarily from mass shootings: After the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the NRA’s political action committee raised some $2.7 million in mere months, thanks in large part to individual donors who imagined, probably rightly, that gun-loving politicians would need a little extra support with 20 dead elementary schoolers to answer for. These bursts in donations, of course, enable the NRA to offer cash and other forms of electoral aid to their many friends in Congress.
But that’s all material. The greater victory for the right, where mass shootings are concerned, is psychological. Mass murders, especially those that take place in U.S. schoolhouses, appear to advance the much-beloved conservative claim that the state cannot or will not help you; that our government is disorderly, shambolic and derelict by its very nature; that you are in danger, very grave danger, and the only person you can really trust to protect you is yourself. The people you think you know, these incidents suggest, are really strangers; the places that laws require your children to go are killing fields; the act of joining a greater community only makes you an easier target. A certain breed of far-right American conservatism thrives on the kind of nightmarish mistrust that makes social cohesion impossible — the same breed that demonizes immigrants, welfare recipients, people of color, and so on.
Nobody loves mass shootings. But they do unleash a virulent sort of fear that benefits a particular political faction. And, no, it’s not the left.
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