Of all the silly things that people say after a shooting incident like the one this week in Virginia, the silliest thing of all is, “don’t politicize the tragedy.”Of course, people who say this don’t really mean it. What they mean is something more like, “Don’t say political things about the tragedy that I don’t agree with.” The side that usually responds this way usually has no problem politicizing other tragedies, when the said politicization works better with the beliefs it actually holds.
But let’s take the statement on its face. When somebody says, “don’t politicize the tragedy,” they are saying that politics and tragedy belong to separate realms of thought. Tragedy is serious and solemn, while politics is dirty and trivial—and completely irrelevant to whatever might have occurred. This line of thinking, while common, is actually frightening when you think about it even a little bit.
The mess of influence peddling and sausage making that we call “politics” is the only mechanism that the citizens of a society have to solve, or even address, the big issues. And creating a safer society is one of the biggest issues of all.
In many ways, the United States has succeeded in creating a society that enjoys what philosophers call tranquilitas ordinis—the ordinary civil peace that means that most people in the society feel confident every morning when they wake up that they will live through the day. This civic peace did not break out spontaneously; it is the result of a legal environment that was created through a political process.
One of the great exceptions to this tranquilitas ordinis is the mass shooting incident, something that happens with distressing frequency in the United States, and only very rarely in every other developed country on the earth. We’ve all seen the charts. These events are not entirely random in their distribution. If they were, we would expect them to occur with about the same frequency in countries with similar income and education levels and levels of economic development.
But they don’t. It’s not even close. We are well ahead of all countries, regardless of development level or population, when it comes to this particular form of horrible violence—and that includes places where terrorists regularly terrorize populations with the same tactics. And mass shootings do create fear and terror disproportionately to the lives that they actually claim. They are, in other words, a huge social problem that claims innocent victims every year and decrease the quality of life (which requires a sense of security) for all Americans.
The problem of mass violence, in other words, is precisely the sort of problem that politics is supposed to solve. And there is no way to solve the problem without at least looking at the role that the easy availability of firearms plays in this unique and horrifying part of American culture. It is one of the variables (and yes, there are others) that distinguishes us from similarly developed countries that don’t have mass shooting incidents every year—and that, of course, would be all of themWhat we have allowed to exist in the status quo is nothing like a non-political approach to the problem. It is a highly political one. We have all tacitly agreed that the truly horrible incidents of mass gun violence that occur regularly in our country (and nowhere else) are simply the price we must pay for virtually uncontrolled access to firearms.
Some blame this on the Constitution, though the Second Amendment has NEVER been interpreted—not even by the people who wrote it—as a bar against any limits on the ownership and possession of firearms. Beyond certain fairly well-defined lines, the regulation of firearms is a political issue that should be decided by political mechanisms.
If we are to determine that the occasional school shooting is the price we must pay for easy access to firearms, let us at least agree to the proposition on those terms. Let us have the debate—and force our representatives to have the debate—in terms that make the political choices crystal clear. That means no back-room deals, no evading the issue, and no official censorship of the CDC and other federal agencies when they try to gather statistics and measure the actual effects of gun laws on mass (and other) shootings.
And for heaven’s sake, let’s not throw our arms up in despair and say things like, “gee, I really wish that all of these shooting sprees would stop, but I just don’t think it is right to politicize the tragedy.” If tragedies like these cannot be addressed with the political apparatus, then there is no point to having a government at all.