Society / August 25, 2023

Republicans Want Us to Be Afraid of Everything but Guns

For all their talk of being tough on crime, the GOP primary candidates had nothing to say about the lethal weapons that kill thousands of Americans every year.

Sasha Abramsky
Gun shop MAGA hat

A Trump supporter at Howell’s Gun Shop in Gray, Me.

(Derek Davis / Staff Photographer)

On Wednesday night, as the first Republican primary debate was underway, a retired police officer apparently gunning for his ex-wife went into a biker bar in Orange County and shot up the joint. By the time his fellow officers took him down, nine people had been shot and four of them, including the gunman, had died.

CNN, which, like most other news outlets, gave the incident only sparse coverage, reported that it was the 460th mass shooting in the US this year. It’s become such a common occurrence that editors no longer give the mass shooting of the day top placement on news sites. More run-of-the-mill, non-mass-casualty shootings have also simply become background noise. The Gun Violence Archive hadn’t yet added the Orange County shooting to its database as of Thursday morning, but it had added 24 other shootings around America for August 23. The archive calculates that, as of late August, roughly 28,000 Americans have died by gun violence—suicides, murders, accidental deaths, police shootings, as well as defensive use of guns—in the first eight months of 2023. This puts the country on track for roughly 40,000 gun violence deaths through all of 2023. Add in the number of drug overdose deaths, and the country is losing more than 140,000 people annually to guns and drugs. That’s low-level Civil War numbers for needless death.

Despite the horrors in Orange County on Wednesday evening, California, with its relatively strict gun control laws, has one of the lowest gun fatality rates in the country. Only six states have lower per capita gun death rates. By contrast, most GOP-run states, with their almost entirely unregulated gun sales, ownership, and right-to-carry laws, have far higher gun violence death rates.

The eight GOP debaters had plenty to say about crime, but nothing to say about the easy availability of guns. They fixated, instead, on shutting down the southern border in order to stem the flow of fentanyl into the US. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis advocated sending in special forces to tackle the narco-trafficking cartels of Mexico and Central America. Several dwelled on the nefarious role played by China in shipping the chemical building blocks of fentanyl to the drug labs of Mexico. That’s true, but it doesn’t address the social despair, the mental health crisis, and the rampant inequality that lead to so many Americans’ craving these devastating drugs in the first place.

Chris Christie said that as president he would immediately have his new attorney general order DAs around the country to prosecute violent criminals. Vivek Ramaswamy pledged to put more cops on the streets and asked his audience “do we have the spine?” to reopen America’s asylums to lock dangerously mentally ill homeless away from the broader population. DeSantis reminisced about meeting “Angel Moms” whose children had been killed by undocumented immigrants. The candidates decried “radical,” supposedly Soros-funded, urban district attorneys who had abandoned their traditional prosecutorial role. They bemoaned, in echoes of Trump’s notorious “American carnage” inauguration speech, declining cities and blood-soaked homeless encampments. What none of them offered was even the most modest of gun control policies—support for red-flag laws, say, or efforts to remove ghost guns from America’s streets.

It was like an chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. All eight of the I’m-not-Donald-Trump candidates who showed up for the Fox debate had plenty to say about all aspects of crime, especially violent crime, except the single biggest contributor to America’s spiraling violent crime rate: the insanely easy availability of high-powered weaponry and the abysmal lack of regulations to monitor who buys, owns, and carries what weapons. They blamed illegal immigrants for crime, while having nothing to say about homegrown mass shooters such as the Orange County killer, of which there are, these days, no shortage. They put the blame for urban woes at the feet of George Soros and big-city Democratic leaders, instead of looking at the ongoing lack of social infrastructure and affordable housing investments in America’s poorer communities, or the role of the NRA in blocking any and all meaningful gun control legislation at a federal level, or the vastly higher gun death rates in GOP states than in Democratic ones. Ramaswamy blamed single moms for letting their kids go off the rails. DeSantis intimated that it was the fault of the teachers’ unions, which he held responsible for permitting kids to go through schools without basic learning skills.

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Donald Trump, perhaps wisely, ducked under the debate wave and instead sat down for a recorded interview with Tucker Carlson, avoiding what DeSantis—in a rare moment of honesty—termed a “food fight.” But he’s long favored using the US military to go after domestic and overseas criminal gangs, and has long sought an expansive use of the death penalty—including for drug dealers. Despite having embraced some limited criminal justice system reforms while he was president, he has, over the last few years, pivoted to an unmitigated tough-on-crime rhetoric.

Given the myriad social problems contributing to America’s rising violent crime rate, and the extraordinary increase in gun ownership over the past couple decades, the GOP hopefuls’ inability to have even the beginning of a cogent conversation on gun violence, or on big-picture social investments, is a huge problem. DeSantis—who went into the debate on Wednesday as number two in the race but likely will come out with falling ratings thanks to his hopeless debating style—can play the demagogue when it comes to talking about Angel Moms. But where is he when it comes to engaging with the moms of gun violence victims killed or injured by people who aren’t undocumented immigrants? Why is his party MIA when it comes to having even the most rudimentary of public discussions around gun control?

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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