Hopelessness is the most powerful tool in the arsenal of a heartless gun industry and the National Rifle Association, which implements its deadly agenda. If Americans believe nothing can be done to save lives, then even the most well-intentioned citizens “move on” after each new massacre at a school, supermarket, hospital, or church.
The NRA’s political puppets have mastered the art of muttering “thoughts and prayers” and then changing the subject before anyone objects. So, of course Texas Governor Greg Abbott was shocked when former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke interrupted a press conference at which the cynical Republican was making excuses for failing to take steps to prevent an 18-year-old gunman from slaughtering 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde. “You are doing nothing,” O’Rourke told Abbott, the man he hopes to replace in November. “You are offering up nothing. You said this was not predictable. This was totally predictable when you choose not to do anything.”
O’Rourke’s intervention was a bracing antidote to a moment of despair. By calling out Abbott, he countered the rhetoric of hopelessness that claims no meaningful action can be taken at a time when ever more horrific death tolls and backstories—like that of the racist teenager who on May 14 murdered 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket—are met with pundit-talk about “gridlock” on Capitol Hill and Supreme Court subservience to the gun industry.
That industry feeds on frustration. It relies on a sense of powerlessness to maintain its deadly profiteering. But Americans do not have to accept the lies that justify inaction.
“Let us finally do something,” President Biden urged in a poignant June 2 speech calling for Congress to raise the age for assault-weapon purchases, strengthen background checks, and enact red-flag laws. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, the Senate’s most ardent gun-control advocate, asked his colleagues, “Why are you here, if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” A handful of Senate Republicans responded in apparent agreement. Now, the senator representing Sandy Hook says he’s engaged in bipartisan discussions about approving at least some of the measures Biden mentioned, along with increased funding for mental health programs and school safety. Murphy has to be wary of Republican attempts to use negotiations for PR purposes. He also has to build a coalition to overcome procedural barriers, as meaningful action will need to get around the filibuster. That won’t be easy, but Murphy’s right when he says this is no time to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
That does not mean, however, that Biden should stop pushing for the perfect. The president should create a federal Office of Gun Violence Prevention and order the Department of Health and Human Services to step up efforts to address gun violence as a public health matter. He can also issue an executive order that Everytown for Gun Safety vice president Nick Suplina says “would cut illegal guns off at the source by clearly defining who needs to be licensed to sell guns.”
In the states, Democratic governors and legislators can enact assault-weapon bans and gun licensing measures. These are fights worth waging. “We know gun licensing, supported by the majority of Americans, makes a difference,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “Heck, when Connecticut did it, their gun violence rate fell 40 percent.” Where Democrats are in charge, legislatures can pass laws like one in New York that allows victims of gun violence to sue gun dealers. And in Republican “red states,” citizens can advance these measures via ballot initiatives.
Undoubtedly, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court will continue to upend many gun-control measures. But let’s force the issue, in hopes that some laws will survive the high court’s judicial activism. And let’s elect senators this November who will fill upcoming judicial vacancies with rational appointees, along with governors who will stand up to the gun lobby.
Elections, at the federal and state levels, remain the best tool for tackling gun violence. Overwhelming majorities of Americans favor background checks, assault-weapon bans, and other measures that could have prevented the recent massacres. What’s vital is to make gun violence a front-line election issue—not a passing headline. To get the equation right, we need more candidates like O’Rourke who refuse to let anyone tell them there’s nothing to be done to prevent gunmen from massacring fourth graders.