What our legislators need to do to break the pattern of mass shootings
Again, the bullet. Again, the agony. On May 3, a disgruntled city employee opened fire in a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Va., killing 12 people and sending terrified co-workers running for their lives. This was the 10th mass shooting of 2019 (the F.B.I. defines a “mass shooting” as an incident in which four or more people, not including the suspect, are killed).
How did Americans react? In a word, predictably. As I followed the coverage, I felt something like the main character in “Groundhog Day,” the 1993 film in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman who gets trapped in a time loop and must live the same day over and over again—Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa. In the film, the effect of repetition is comic. In the real world—Virginia Beach and elsewhere—it is not.
Yet we are repeating the same day over and over. It begins when the news breaks: The drama unfolds live in a terrifying, chyron-ed frenzy on national television, as an army of law enforcers, dressed as for the Battle of Iwo Jima, surrounds the building. Word usually comes that the shooter has been killed or has killed himself. Community leaders, their faces contorted by confusion and horror, then make statements. The usual opinions are offered, none of them new, few of them helpful. Someone demands that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. Nothing is done. Most of us, exhausted by the whole ghastly spectacle and almost pathologically pessimistic about the prospects for any change, turn our attention elsewhere. Until the next time.
Most of us, exhausted by the whole ghastly spectacle and almost pathologically pessimistic about the prospects for any change, turn our attention elsewhere.
In the movie, Bill Murray’s character is the only one who knows that they are living through the same event day after day. In real life, on the other hand, most of us recognize the pattern I just described. But if we can recognize it, why can’t we stop it? One reason is the influence of groups like the National Rifle Association. Don’t get me wrong. Most members of the N.R.A. are law-abiding, decent, responsible citizens. My father is one of them.
But the N.R.A. leadership exercises a hugely disproportionate level of influence over national gun policy. Through its powerful lobby and congressional campaign donations, pro-gun organizations like the N.R.A. have a virtual veto over any firearms legislation. And the gun lobby it leads opposes almost every reform, however modest.
In this way, the N.R.A. is not unlike the pro-abortion lobby, which similarly opposes even minimal restrictions on abortion services—a strategy driven by their fears of a slippery slope. And like the pro-abortion lobby, the N.R.A. leadership is demonstrably out of step with the majority of Americans, who, in poll after poll, say they favor reasonable restrictions on both abortion services and the manufacture and sale of firearms.
In both of these areas of public policy, then, the political process is controlled by a powerful minority of Americans. Yet prescinding from the merits of this or that reform, surely the vast majority of us who constitute the vast majority of Americans should be able to see that in neither case is this disproportionate influence a healthy thing for our democracy.
In this way, the N.R.A. is not unlike the pro-abortion lobby, which similarly opposes even minimal restrictions on abortion services—a strategy driven by their fears of a slippery slope.
How do we break the pattern? First, we need legislators who recognize the problem and are willing to buck the special interests by advocating for sensible solutions most Americans would favor. It would also help if we rightsized the influence of lobbyists and campaign donations. To that end, politicians should consider some version of an idea that Peggy Noonan proposed last year in The Wall Street Journal (2/15/18).
What if Democratic members of Congress agreed to stop accepting campaign contributions from the pro-abortion lobby if Republican members of Congress agreed to stop accepting money from the pro-gun lobby? They would take this step simply in the interests of democracy, to create a space in which sensible reforms supported by a majority of voters could at least be considered. Neither side would necessarily have to change its position on these issues, but such an arrangement would at least give both sides greater freedom to negotiate. It would also send a signal that, while disagreeing about some things, our political leaders can still agree about at least one thing: that the health of our democracy is more important than gaining partisan advantage.
In the end, of course, it is up to us, the voters, to hold these men and women accountable. Our failure to do so is literally a matter of life and death. But it would help a lot if the partisans on both sides decided to break the loop by doing something bold, something different. But to do that, they need to stop living in fear of their own shadows.