If there’s one thing Americans can count on as reliably as another mass shooting, it’s the wave of conservative politicians and pundits who will demand that they not “politicize” such tragedies.
“Gun control is a legitimate issue, but for the [Democrats] already raising it after Las Vegas massacre, could we just have a day before plunging in?” Fox News host Howard Kurtz tweeted Monday.
Hours earlier, a gunman — allegedly 64-year-old Mesquite, Nevada, resident Stephen Paddock — opened fire on thousands of concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 and wounding more than 500.
Red State editor Kimberly Ross argued that “the time for debate will come later.”
“Don’t politicize [the shooting],” she tweeted to her followers.
Others declined to concede the importance of having a debate at all. Fox News’ Kennedy Montgomery blasted Hillary Clinton as a “heartless hack” after the former secretary of state tweeted critically about the National Rifle Association’s role in proliferating ownership of automatic weapons.
“People are in surgery [and] dying [and] families aren’t sure if loved ones have survived,” Montgomery tweeted. “Don’t politicize this you heartless hack!”
The most glaring feature of these statements is their illogic. Mass shootings have long since made the jump from occasional tragedy to routine fixture of American life. To rage against mining politics to understand why is to navigate the conversation with one’s eyes closed — or to intentionally derail it.
But equally striking is how disingenuous these statements are. The conservative commentators who rail against politicizing gun deaths can only do so because politics has already guaranteed their interests. Even when they shroud their views in faux decency, their aim is political: to ensure that America’s gun laws go more or less unchanged.
The question is not if politics has a place in this debate, or even when. It’s whose politics get prioritized.
This is apparent at every step in the debate. The reason gun deaths happen in the United States at rates that far outstrip those of similarly developed nations is largely that Americans have more guns than anyone else, by a long shot.
Part of this is because the U.S. Constitution protects its citizens’ right to own firearms, and some of those citizens are invested in being free to interpret or abuse that right as they please. Part of it is because special interests — like the NRA and its supporters — spend millions of dollars every election cycle to ensure there are as few limitations to that right as possible.
These are both political reasons. To claim there’s a right and wrong to time “politicize” the issue is to ignore that it would neither exist, nor can it be resolved, without politics. This was true when the Constitution was ratified in the 1780s. It is true as blood dries on the Las Vegas Strip today.
But shirking politics also ignores that these political decisions have produced cultural norms. The right to unfettered gun ownership is a value held deeply by many conservatives, whose party currently runs the U.S. Republicans hold the White House, both chambers of Congress and most governorships and state legislatures. Only 26% of Republican voters think it is more important to control gun ownership than it is to protect the right to bear arms, according to the Pew Research Center.
These figures suggest that ensuring Americans’ guns remain untouched is both a cultural touchstone for many on the right and an establishment mandate — the expression of which has helped carry countless men and women to political office, and buoyed careers in conservative media. The political, financial and ideological stakes these people have in avoiding an honest debate about gun deaths is obvious. When things are working out for you personally, there’s little incentive to challenge them.
But the conservative impulse to fight against politicizing an issue when the status quo favors them isn’t limited to guns. For most people who suffer due to the policies the right champions, conservatives’ habit of casting their position as a reasonable norm — where any challenge becomes a politically motivated attack — is just business as usual.
It’s how Aaron J. Carpenter, a contributor to the right-wing website Red Alert, can write, “People who politicize horrendous tragedies like what happened in Las Vegas are absolutely the worst kind of people” — less than a week after posting a viral tweet where he used images of a U.S. soldier’s coffin to criticize the NFL national anthem protests against racist police violence.
It’s how President Donald Trump can watch people dying in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, then dismiss those who take issue with his administration’s lackluster rescue efforts as “politically motivated ingrates.”
This vision of politics only works if you can convince people that your politics aren’t actually politics — or if you can make them believe that constantly moving the goalposts regarding what is political and what isn’t is an acceptable way to maintain power.
And nobody does this better than the right. An issue is only political when they want it to be. Thus, it becomes inappropriate to debate policy after a terror attack, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — unless the president is touting the virtues of his Muslim ban.
Conservatives can do this because politics has helped them build a fortress to do it from. Political norms have for decades established the Second Amendment as an excuse to avoid action whenever mass shootings occur. Politics has enshrined the racial inequality that NFL players are protesting, such that black men being killed by police prompts excuses while kneeling during the national anthem provokes outrage.
But since these politics are functionally invisible, it’s easy to pretend they aren’t really politics. They are the American normal. Any effort to subvert them is dismissed as driven by an illegitimate agenda. And the consequences continue to devastate — and will, until a seismic cultural shift takes place. Because it’s only possible to dismiss an issue as “political” when those same politics aren’t killing you.