Boston, Texas, and Gun Control
Of the three major news events, only the Senate’s failure to add background checks to pending gun control legislation is on the surface a political story. But the calamities in Boston and Texas have already become, and no doubt will continue to be, hotly contested political issues as well. The timing of the Boston bombing assures that it will be a political football—violent rampage by a pair of well-armed immigrants just as gun control and immigration legislation are working their way through Congress. Before the identity of the bombers was even known, Iowa Representative Steven King was calling for a halt to immigration reform based on speculation that the bombers were foreign nationals. While it’s unclear whether any of the reforms being considered in Congress would have affected the Tsarnaevs’ legal status in coming to and staying in America, both sides of the debate are arguing for why the Boston bombings demonstrate the need for or danger of the reforms they favor or oppose. On the gun control side, while Boston was in lockdown Arkansas State Representative Nate Bell snarkily suggested that perhaps the liberal residents of the city wished they had looser gun laws (Bell has since apologized). The fact that the Tsarnaevs used illegally obtained guns has both sides debating whether that shows the need for more extensive and better enforced regulations, or whether it shows that criminals don’t follow the law anyway, so what’s the point?
Meanwhile, the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed at least 14 people and injured 200 more has revived debates over deregulation and the funding of regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Despite housing volatile chemicals such as those used in the Oklahoma City bombing, the fertilizer plant sat within 3,000 feet of two schools and within eyesight of a nursing home, and hadn’t been inspected by OSHA since 1985. The Blue-Green Alliance—an alliance of labor and environmental groups—is using the explosion to call for increased funding for OSHA and other regulatory organizations, while Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is bemoaning what he sees as the left’s hypocrisy in politicizing the Texas explosion in debates over regulation while criticizing the right for politicizing the Boston bombing in the debate over immigration.
The current legislative fight over gun control provides a glimpse into the future of how the events in Boston and Texas will work their way into the political debate. The push behind the gun control legislation began following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. During his scathing press conference following the defeat of the background check amendment, the president was flanked by survivors and victims’ family members from the Newtown shooting and the January 2011 shooting that nearly killed former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Even before the press conference, Republican Senator Rand Paul accused the White House of using the victims of gun violence as “props” in the debate over gun control.
The sheer volume of tragedy and political debate has left politicians confused about exactly who has accused whom of politicizing what. I’m on record as believing that, while we should be on guard about exploitation of our fears and emotions, tragic events should be part of our political debate. For instance, the timing and tone of Representative Bell’s tweet was insensitive, but the main problem with his comment wasn’t that he was using the events in Boston and the danger facing the people there to advocate his position on gun control. There’s no point in having a debate over gun control if it’s not going to be about which laws will make people safer. The main problem with Bell’s comment is that he would, in any circumstance, advance the dangerous position that the path to less gun violence lies through having more guns.
[pullquote_left]It’s important to draw a distinction between politics and governing.[/pullquote_left]
It’s important, though, to draw a distinction between politics (at least as we currently think of that term) and governing. Too often we conflate the two or, even worse, see acts of government as nothing more than tools for winning elections or even just news cycles. There’s plenty of blame to go around for this. Politicians take the path of least resistance to getting elected and re-elected. The press finds it easier and more lucrative to cover politics the way it would sports, focusing on tactics and success and failure while studiously avoiding any suggestion that one side or one position may be better or worse for the country. And, ultimately, however poorly served we are by our representatives and the media, we’re the ones who get to vote and choose what media to consume.
If the issues are viewed as nothing more than fodder for a game politicians are playing against one another, then invoking the real people affected by those issues seems especially callous and unforgiveable. To the extent that this view of American politics is accurate, the politicization of tragic events is indeed shameful, but that shamefulness is the product of a much deeper flaw in our republic. If instead we view government as a vehicle through which we come together to address the problems facing us as a people—as we should view it and demand that it in fact be—then tragic moments are an appropriate time for addressing the problems we face and the proper means for responding to them and preventing further hardship. As illustrated by the Barney Frank quote in this excellent Charles P. Pierce post, the performance of Boston’s first responders demonstrated why we need a “common pool” of resources to respond to mass hardship. There’s also no point to having a debate about the trade-offs between security and liberty and humanitarianism that isn’t informed by the real-world consequences of policies in areas like gun control and immigration.
Tragic events like the Boston bombing have a tendency to unite this very divided country, and much of the resistance to talking about controversial policies at a time like this comes from a feeling that we are squandering that sense of common purpose. But part of the price of living in a democratic republic is the need to make difficult choices and engage in potentially uncomfortable and factious debates, and the moments we face our greatest challenges can be the most appropriate moments to have those debates.