After Colorado shooting, let's have the debate the NRA doesn't want

Posted: July 22, 2012

For all the dysfunction in our politics, a healthy pattern usually takes hold when a terrible tragedy seizes the nation's attention. We engage in a searching conversation about what rational steps can be taken by individuals, communities, and government to make a comparable tragedy less likely. Sometimes we act, and sometimes we don't, but at least we explore sensible solutions.

Unless the tragedy involves guns. Then our public reasoning goes haywire. Anyone who dares say an event such as the massacre at a Colorado movie theater early Friday requires us to rethink our firearms laws is accused of "exploiting" the deaths of innocent people.

This is part of the gun lobby's rote response, and the rest of us allow it to work every time. Its goal is to block any conversation about how our nation's gun laws, the most permissive in the industrialized world, increase the likelihood of mass killings of this sort.

First, the gun lobby goes straight to the exploitation argument — which is, of course, a big lie. We never allow an assertion of this kind to stop conversation about other issues.

Nobody who points to inadequate flood-control policies is accused of "exploiting" the victims of a deluge. Nobody who criticizes a botched response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is accused of "exploiting" the victims of a hurricane or tornado.

No, it's only where a gun massacre is concerned that a gag rule is imposed on any thinking beyond the immediate circumstances of the catastrophe. God forbid we question a tenet of the theology of firearms.

The lobby then goes to its backup moves. The problem, it insists, lies in the failure to enforce existing laws — ignoring that the National Rifle Association's goal is to weaken such laws.

Weapons worshipers also put heavy stress on the psychological disabilities of the killer in a particular incident to create a sense of futility and resignation. Crazy people, they say, will do crazy things, and there is nothing we can do about this. Never mind that more rational laws would help keep guns out of the hands of people with a history of mental illness. Never mind that it's harder to get a license to drive a car than it is to own a gun. Never mind that even an expansive Supreme Court reading of the Second Amendment acknowledged the right of legislatures to enact sensible gun regulations.

And then there is the trump card: We would all be safer, says the gun lobby, if every last one of us owned a gun.

Why is there so little pushback against assertions that are so transparently designed to prevent rather than promote dialogue? The answer lies in a profound timidity on the part of politicians in both parties. The Republicans are allied with the gun lobby, and the Democrats are intimidated by it.

Sure, there are some dissenters. Many of the nation's mayors, led by Mike Bloomberg of New York and Tom Menino of Boston, have tried to organize a push for carefully tailored laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But they are the exceptions. President Obama has done little to challenge the NRA, and yet it attacks him anyway.

There are many reasons for this timidity, not the least being a U.S. Senate that vastly overrepresents rural voters. Add to this a GOP that bows low before any antigovernment argument, as well as a Democratic Party petrified of losing rural support — and without any confidence that advocates of tough gun laws will cast ballots on the basis of this issue.

So let's ask ourselves: Aren't we all in danger of being complicit in throwing up our hands and allowing the gun lobby to write our gun laws?

Awful things happen, we mourn them, and then we shrug. And that's why they keep happening.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist.

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