Opinion

How to win the gun debate: Stop talking about guns

School shootings are horrific crimes. Let's start talking about them that way.

President Trump's 2016 campaign was relentless in its depiction of an on-the-brink America awash in crime. Here's Trump in his shockingly dark inaugural address:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. [President Trump]

Never mind that most indicators showed the country was enjoying a respite from such troubles, with numbers dipping to levels not seen since the early 1960s. Trump shoved the statistics aside to paint a dystopian picture of a nation sinking under Death Wish-levels of murder and assault. And Trump, it was clear, wanted to be our Charles Bronson.

Trump was right about one thing: There is American carnage. It's just different than what Trump described. And he seems utterly disinterested in helping us end it.

Seventeen dead in Parkland, Florida. Twenty-six massacred in a Texas church. Fifty-eight slaughtered in Las Vegas. Hundreds more injured and maimed and traumatized, lives ruined and interrupted and ended.

This is carnage, and it demands a solution. Yet Trump and his party have been utterly absent in finding solutions.

Democrats shouldn't despair. They can change this. But it will require some counterintuitive thinking.

Forget guns. It's time for liberals to recast America's mass killings as a crime problem. And it's time to cast politicians who sit on their hands in the face of such massacres — Trump chief among them — as soft on crime.

It's easy enough to imagine the ad, isn't it?

Donald Trump said it was time for the school shootings to stop. But when it came time for action, what did he and Republicans do? Nothing. Will Trump ever crack down on the murderers killing American children? No. He simply doesn't care about America's most pressing crime problem. Donald Trump: Soft on crime, bad for America.

For good measure, slap a picture of Trump's face next to Nikolas Cruz's. A Willie Horton ad of Democrats' very own.

You might say this is cynical, or a bridge too far. But it also might actually produce a solution to the problem of routine massacres in our country. Wouldn't that be worth it?

Liberals have seen their preferred gun-control solutions rejected again and again: An assault weapons ban? Nope. Close the gun-show loophole? Nah. Well, we can at least agree to prohibit bump stocks, right? No deal.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made noises about mental health, but have never produced a real plan, or moved to enact one. It's time to make them feel some political pain for their inaction. It's time to change the terms of this debate.

Democrats have been successful in the past when they grabbed the "tough on crime" mantle from the GOP. Bill Clinton won the support of middle America when he put 100,000 cops on the street. (He also helped create hysteria over "superpredators" and contributed to mass incarceration, so that's also a cautionary tale.) But there's no reason for Democrats to cede the terms of this debate to Republicans — nor to let the right claim to be the side of safety and security.

Trump was right about one thing: The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead. The president and his party are failing the test. They are soft on crime. It's time to hold them accountable.

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