The Republican surrender to gun violence

What their response to mass shootings has in common with their response to COVID-19

An elephant.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Perhaps the surest — and sickest — sign that, after more than a year of the pandemic, things are getting back to "normal" in the U.S. has been not only the return of mass shootings, but also the Republican refusal to do anything about them.

After two gun massacres in Atlanta and Boulder in just one week left 18 people, including a police officer, dead, President Biden has asked Congress to pass stricter gun laws, including an assault weapons ban and tighter background check requirements. "This is not and should not be a partisan issue," Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. "It is an American issue. We have to act."

That message has been repeated by Senate Democrats. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence the same day as Biden’s remarks – and just one day after the Colorado gunman killed ten people in a Boulder grocery store – Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut implored his colleagues, "it is time for us to do something."

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Republicans are having none of it. Scoffing at Blumenthal’s suggestion, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz lambasted Democrats for engaging in "political theater."

"What happens in this committee after every mass shooting," Cruz continued, "is Democrats proposed taking away guns from law-abiding citizens because that’s their political objective," as if the real absurdity of American life was Democratic action rather than the regularity of mass gun killings in the nation.

Employing the twisted logic that has justified Republican inaction on gun violence for years, Cruz contended that rather than reducing crime, gun control legislation only "makes it worse," as if America’s astronomically high rate of gun violence wasn’t obviously correlated with America’s astronomically high rate of civilian gun ownership That thinking was also clear in the comments of Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second ranking Senate Republican, who explained, "there’s not a big appetite among our members to do things that would appear to be addressing it, but actually don’t do anything to fix the problem."

If anything demonstrates just how much the GOP has changed from its once-held belief in good governance to its radical anti-government stance, it’s the issue of gun control. For decades, Republicans had a reputation for supporting moderate gun control laws. (Some even entertained more drastic measures, such as Richard Nixon’s private deliberation over whether to ban all handguns in 1972.) The Republican philosophy of limited government still allowed most Republicans to believe they had an obligation to limit guns.

But with the National Rifle Association’s increasing influence over Republican lawmakers in recent years — a development that grew directly out of the NRA’s own shift from its history of supporting gun control legislation to its hardline defense of Americans’ absolute right to gun ownership — Republicans largely abandoned their willingness to back gun safety legislation.

Instead, they leaned heavily into the "culture wars" messaging that the NRA and conservative media outlets were hyping while offering no real policy solutions to address the nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Democrats were socialists who wanted to take guns away from law-abiding citizens while opening up the borders for thugs and criminals to come in, they contended.

As gun-related deaths rise one year after another, Republican lawmakers are now set on convincing their voters that government intervention won’t help. If anything, what is needed is more guns and less government. "The right of self-defense doesn’t stop at the end of your driveway," a policy document from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign read – a campaign for which, it should be noted, the NRA poured out $30 million.

Of course, the idea that government can’t offer any useful solutions and that Americans must fend for themselves isn’t limited to just the issue of gun violence. It undergirds the Republicans’ approach to nearly all real problems the nation faces, seen most devastatingly in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Donald Trump’s refusal to issue a national mask mandate that public health officials were calling for had disastrous effects as infection and death rates soared upwards in 2020. Conservative pundits blasted mask orders as "totalitarianism," the same sort of alarmist response given to any proposed limits on gun rights. And Republican leaders, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida who insisted mask requirements wouldn’t work, encouraged public sentiments that the government didn’t have much of a role to play in combating the virus.

This notion of government’s uselessness was also visible in how leading conservative media figures defended Cruz when news leaked that he had run off to sunny Cancun after a winter storm across Texas left millions of his constituents without power or drinkable water for days. "It’s not a real-time crisis that Ted Cruz…can do anything about," Ben Shapiro barked on his radio show at the time. "Members of Congress don’t do anything for a living," Shapiro said, both letting Cruz off the hook and, once again, undermining listeners’ trust that government can deliver substantive results.

When it comes to Republican efforts on many of the most pressing issues of our day, Shapiro isn’t wrong. Still, Republican inaction on gun violence and COVID-19 looks all the more appalling when compared to where they do devote their energies. Of late, many of them have been busy tossing red meat to their base on Twitter and Fox News over trivial matters like Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, and Meghan Markle.

Such outrages against the so-called American way of life, Republicans are happy to spend hours railing against. Half a million Americans gone because of the coronavirus and tens of thousands killed every year by guns, though? That’s just something we’ve got to live with.

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