In the immediate wake of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children, several voices in the media eloquently and justifiably made the case for more robust gun-control laws. The general theme was that now is the time for this discussion, an impassioned rebuttal of the conservative critique that such a debate would "politicize" the tragedy. As Ezra Klein at The Washington Post put it, "That is code, essentially, for 'don't talk about reforming our gun control laws'":
Let's be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It's just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.
The renewed push for change is also clearly a reaction to President Obama's craven reluctance to even discuss gun control during the election, despite the fact that mass shootings have, depressingly, become a regular feature of American life. The president may have gotten a pass from his liberal base during the election, when it was tacitly understood that he couldn't give the GOP a wedge to peel off voters. But not now. Not when 20 children have been killed. As a result, even Obama's tearful reaction to the shooting has only angered those who want him to do something. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, said Obama's call for "meaningful action" was not enough. As Allison Benedikt at Slate wrote:
Twenty-seven people are dead, 20 of them children, and you just told the nation that we're all going to have to "extend a hand to those in need." "We've endured too many of these tragedies," you rightly noted, clearly moved by the particular horrendousness of what took place in Connecticut today. And then, holding back your tears, you said this: I react to news like this, "not as a president, but as a parent."
God, that is unbelievably wrong. React as a president.
This is a completely understandable demand. And it's the obligation of the media to make such demands. But just imagine for a moment what would have happened if Obama had, say, called for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, which expired under George W. Bush. Imagine that political bomb thrown into a fevered media atmosphere in which passions are running high, in which it's hard for anyone to think clearly amid so much anger and grief. Imagine the headlines changed, the vehement Twitter arguments, and the predictable hardening of partisan positions, all centered on a single figure: Obama. Gun-rights advocates could focus their opposition on a familiar bogeyman, and we wouldn't really be talking about gun control, or even those 20 kids anymore. The issue would be fully "politicized" — in this sense, a Left vs. Right tussle divorced from the truly pressing matter at hand.
That's not to say that Obama should wait so long that people forget why the issue of gun control is so important. This is, indeed, a moment that calls for action. But for a polarizing figure, acting in the heat of the moment could ultimately defeat the cause. The full story must come out first, and the gravity of the situation must sink in. The right course will, hopefully, come from reflection, not knee-jerk reactions. As Robert Kennedy said, quoting Aeschylus on the night of Martin Luther King's death and trying to calm a bewildered and bereaved crowd, "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."