Briefly, On Policing The Rhetoric Of Teenagers
After two decades of mass shootings scattered all over the country, from Virginia to California to Colorado to Texas and at seemingly all points in between, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting seems to have been an American breaking point. In the aftermath of that particular shooting (seventeen died and another seventeen were injured), polling support has skyrocketed for overhauling the way Americans access and own guns. Even conservative outlets are having a hard time producing polls that undercut the American desire for something, somewhere, to change.
This is a problem for the Republican party. For decades, they have insisted that widespread gun ownership is an unobjectionable good, while simultaneously doing everything imaginable to both destroy the reasonable safeguards that had previously existed in the American system while also blocking all sorts of emergent proposals. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Republicans reached for all of their usual, post-shooting talking points, confidently assuming that they could play the game the way they always had before:
- Step 1: Offer shooting victims, and their friends and families, utterly meaningless thoughts and prayers, and then get full-on pearl-clutchingly offended whenever anybody points out that thoughts and prayers don’t accomplish anything.
- Step 2: Insist that the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is not the time to discuss either mass shootings specifically or gun control generally.
- Step 3: Angrily blather that it would be unfair to “punish” law-abiding gun-owners with regulatory schemes that might help to prevent mass shootings, regardless of what those regulatory schemes might be.
- Step 4: Wait for the furor of the shooting to die down.
- Step 5: Pretend like it never happened.
- Step 6: Cash checks from various gun groups for having once again stymied any attempt to reasonably regulate guns.
In their defense, this has always worked, even in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, a mass killing in which 26 died, including 20 children. In its aftermath, gun control was again proposed but predictably failed after Republicans used the filibuster to sink various ideas. “Think of the poor precious guns!” wailed various Republicans who simply could not be bothered to think that merely twenty gunned-down children were half as bad as the inconvenience of gun-owners having to wait…*checks notes*…a few days to finalize their purchases.
But unlike most shootings, the still-living victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting did not agree to play along with this particular script. Various students from the school – including Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alfonso Calderon, Alex Wind, and Jaclyn Corin – responded aggressively to the Republican post-shooting playbook, repeatedly roasting what they saw as vacuous impotence in the face of what was, to them, an obvious and ongoing problem. School shootings and mass shootings are a constant in American life. In the faces of condescending conservative politicians who repeatedly insisted that young people simply did not understand how wonderful it is that Americans have widespread and almost entirely unfettered access to guns (despite having literally endured one of the consequences of that widespread unfettered access themselves), those five students (and countless others) started the #NeverAgain movement. Several weeks ago, millions of Americans participated in their March For Our Lives at events across the country, indicating publicly what polling had already been showing: there seems to be significant support for gun control among the American population.
It remains to be seen whether common sense gun control is appealing electorally. This November’s upcoming elections might give us that information. But in the immediate aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Conor Lamb, a Democrat running in southwestern PA gun country, won an election while backing a stronger system of background checks, one of several ideas that has been proposed (and subsequently stymied) in the aftermath of various shootings. His opponent, who believed that no new laws were necessary and who enjoyed an A+ rating from the NRA, had been favored to win by double digits. Lamb won in a nailbiter.
Then, earlier this week in Wisconsin, Rebecca Dallet, a liberal candidate for the state Supreme Court, absolutely eviscerated her opponent, winning by more than ten points. Dallet did not shy away from gun control and the NRA poured money in to oppose her but, like Lamb, she not only paid no price, but potentially gained support for her positions on the issue.
Republicans have already been sounding the alarm, apparently concerned that doing absolutely nothing about gun violence beyond proposing that Americans buy more guns might be more of an electoral liability than it has been previously. The intial Republican plan was to simply dismiss the #NeverAgain teenagers out of hand, which included participating in a community forum in which they imagined that the combination of Marco Rubio and the NRA’s Dana Loesch would convince everybody that these teenagers were overreacting to having been shot at. Things did not go as planned. Rubio, thinking he would get one over on the students and the parents, argued that an assault weapons ban would only ban 220 types of guns; Rubio imagined, apparently, that the crowd would nod knowingly and agree, “How could we have been so stupid to have been concerned about gun violence, what with fewer than 20 of our children having been killed. You’re right, Marco.” Instead, the crowd cheered his proposal. This was not the idea. What might have once worked – although it is not clear whether anything so brazenly absurd would have actually sealed the deal – was going to necessitate newer strategy.
So Republicans then have been forced to try other approaches instead.
One of those strategies has been to rabidly conspiracy-monger, apparently believing – or, at least, claiming to believe – that various elements about the shooting itself are either fake or badly misunderstood. This includes all sorts of non-factual claims, including the utterly absurd idea that the entire shooting was staged, or, in lieu of that utterly batshit insanity, simpler, subtler attacks, including photoshopping the students into compromising positions or insisting that they are basically the same as Hitler Youth. Ted Nugent has gotten involved, which always the precursor to subtle, nuanced discussion. Here is somebody angrily insisting that the relative robustness of Hogg’s pubic hair should influence any understanding of his advocacy, which is a very normal thing for a very normal adult man to spend his time thinking about. One of the better and not-at-all-desperate attempts to sway the public against the shooting’s victims involved insisting that at least one of the #NeverAgain movement’s student leaders was not in school the day of the shooting, a claim that collapsed within seconds, owing to such things as this, a video showing the student hiding, in a closet, at his school, during the shooting.* And then there’s Hogg Watch, which is the real name of a real thing that real conservative adults are really doing.
But in the aftermath of the March For Our Lives, Republicans are also now trying their hand at tone policing #NeverAgain’s leaders. This involves appearing to generally agree, at least in the very most general and non-specific ways, with what those teenagers are saying about the current state of American gun violence, but then balking at what those student leaders are proposing and, more importantly, how exactly they are saying it. In this version of the response, some Republicans insist that although they very much want to do something to address the persistent issue of mass shootings, they, unfortunately, cannot, owing to the rhetoric being used by gun control advocates. In this version of the attempt to undermine efforts to address gun violence, those advocating for gun control become the bullies; those insisting upon doing absolutely nothing become the bullied. This effort has focused on several major issues – Hogg, for example, got into it with Laura Ingraham, and refused to back down when she attacked him, which somehow led to an awful lot of conservatives concluding that Ingraham was Hogg’s victim – but the one that currently seems to be most problematic for these particular Republicans is the claim that elected politicians care more about donations from gun groups than they do about the victims of gun violence.
Students and parents at the aforementioned open forum had the temerity to ask Rubio about the money he has accepted by the fistful from gun groups. Rubio’s response, that of course he was going to continue accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sorts of gun groups that stood opposed to any attempt regulate gun purchasing, played roughly as well as everything else he said that night. Students pounced, and have repeatedly argued that politicians including Rubio care more about those gun groups than they do about students.
Aghast while reporting live from his feathery soft fainting couch, here is Rich Lowry, writing at the National Review, explaining the phenomenon:
All you needed to know about student activist David Hogg’s speech at the “March for Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., over the weekend was that he affixed a price tag on the microphone to symbolize how much National Rifle Association money Senator Marco Rubio took for the lives of students in Florida.
That, for the record, is Lowry’s opening gambit in a column that accuses the students of being braying meanies whose unkind words about gun advocates are poisoning the well for civil discourse. Comparing students to donkeys is, on the other hand, entirely acceptable because…umm…reasons! Yes, reasons. Unexplained, unstated reasons. But we will get back to that part of it though.
Here is what Lowry is describing – Hogg explicitly accused Rubio of valuing his life, and the lives of every other student in Florida, at $1.05 apiece. As Vox notes, Hogg was not shy about what he was saying:
“I’m going to start off by putting this price tag right here as a reminder for you guys to know how much Marco Rubio took for every student’s life in Florida. $1.05.” Hogg pointed to the bright orange $1.05 price tag he and other classmates wore to the march.
The figure is their calculation of what each Florida student is worth to the Republican senator; they came up with it by dividing the amount the National Rifle Association has spent to support Rubio’s campaigns, $3.3 million, by the 3.1 million public and private students in the state. Since Rubio’s first Senate bid in 2010, the NRA has spent about $1 million to support his campaigns, and $2.3 million to attack his opponents, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This is what Lowry is so incensed about. How is it possible that these students could possibly conclude that Rubio is motivated by the huge donations he receives from the NRA?
Yet none of that excuses their scurrilous smears of the other side in the gun debate. The student activists presume that there is a ready solution to mass shootings that everyone knows, and the only reason why someone might not act on this universally accepted policy is malice or corruption. This makes the other side the equivalent of murderers.
Lowry’s argument – that he is literally asking his readers to accept on its face – is that it is a ridiculous smear to believe that politicians would do anything in exchange for money. Hogg’s refusal to be decent to those that he believes aided and abetted the murder of his friends went further though.
In a video interview with an outfit called The Outline, David Hogg said that the NRA and its supporters “want to keep killing our children.” Not that they inadvertently enable people who carry out school shootings via misconceived policy, but they themselves kill children and want to keep doing it.
Lest he be misunderstood, Hogg added, “they could have blood from children spattered all over their faces and they wouldn’t take action because they will still see those dollar signs.”
Lowry thinks this is absurd and offensive. How is it that this mere teenager could possibly conclude that Republicans generally, and the NRA and its supporters specifically, prefer scenarios in which children are gunned down at school? The answer is, of course, right there in Rubio’s record: the Florida Senator has consistently opposed gun control, both vocally — in the immediate aftermath of the Florida shooting, Rubio rushed to the Senate floor to tell everyone that gun control would not have stopped the shooting, which is a hell of a claim considering it was not given the opportunity to do any such thing — and with his constant votes in opposition to gun control. The teenagers really needed to look no farther than the juxtaposition between Rubio’s publicly made comments – at the public forum after the shooting, Rubio said, “I will support a law that takes that right away,” referring to a proposal to up the age-limit on purchasing weapons – and his publicly taken actions, like legislation he himself wrote ending Washington D.C.’s ban on selling rifles and assault weapons to 18-year-olds. Seems like a bit of a disconnect.
Lowry sees the same disconnect everybody does but cannot understand why students are laser-focused on Rubio’s voluntary actions, instead of focusing on his words. He said he cares about children, Lowry protests, so how dare these students conclude otherwise based upon his actions? And, because conservatives can never avoid describing themselves as the real victims, even when talking about the literal victims of literal gun violence which they literally have no interest in even pretending to try to stop, Lowry manages this:
Tellingly, it is Marco Rubio who is the foremost object of the ire of the students, when he has been notably open and accommodating. He showed up at the CNN town hall to get abused and has shown remarkable forbearance in handling political attacks on him that are shameless blood libels. He sponsored incremental school-safety legislation that is becoming law, and for his trouble he is deemed a moral monster who doesn’t care how many people have to die as long as he gets a few more campaign contributions.
Yes, heaven forbid Rubio’s votes (and votes, and votes, and votes) be held against him, because, after all, Rubio said he is opposed to gun violence, and per Lowry, this is what really matters, no matter what those votes of Rubio’s end up producing. Per Lowry’s calculus, it is outrageous to allege that Rubio cares more about his neverending faucet of campaign contributions than he does about student lives, despite his having repeatedly voted in lockstep with what those campaign donors wanted, and in opposition to what those students are advocating for. Correlation is not causation or something.
Which leads us to Lowry’s clincher:
It was hard to believe that our public debate could get even more sophomoric. The student activists are here to say, Yes, it can.
Attaching meaning to actions, it would seem, is a crime that is wildly beyond the pale, one that makes it impossible for Republicans to go along with any gun control proposals at all. Ain’t it just the damndest thing in the world that Lowry ended up exactly where he started? Yes, this shooting had been different, and yes, Lowry was ready to discuss possible changes, but then those mean teenagers were insufficiently respectful of Rubio (and, by extension, Lowry), and he was forced to retreat back to a position he has staked out literally a thousand times before.
Maybe all of this would be more convincing if Lowry’s convenient tone-policing was more than just an attempt to wave away the reality that, like Rubio, Lowry believes that the only solution to gun violence is more guns, a point he himself has made repeatedly, even in the aftermath of last year’s Las Vegas shooting, the worst of its kind on American soil. In fact, the Republican bid, currently, is that the only thing that needs to be done in response to horrific mass-shootings is for Americans to purchase even more guns while lessening the strength of whatever rules governing gun-ownership still barely exist. It is almost as if their offer is to do absolutely nothing at all.
But we must ignore all of that, just as we must ignore the occasional disconnect between what Rubio does versus what he says because we must remain focused on the real scourge: the children who had the audacity to be shot at without quietly respecting the glorious freedom that such a shooting represented.
*Infowars, meanwhile, remained just as Infowars as hell about the whole thing.