Just days after a teenage gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, nearly half of Republican voters told pollsters that mass murders were “unfortunately, something we have to accept as part of a free society.”
The gun lobby has continued to insist that guns were the foundation of the nation’s liberty — and none more than the deadliest of semi-automatic weapons.
Break that down.
Forty-four percent of GOP voters say that “we have to accept” the slaughter of children on a more or less regular basis, because they are the collateral damage of living in a free society.
Don’t slide past that poll number, because it gives us a glimpse of how broken our discourse has become, when weapons become fetishes of manhood and guns designed to blow human beings are embraced as symbols of “freedom.”
There is no confusion or misunderstanding here, because the wording of the question was clear and blunt (“Do you feel that mass shootings are___”), and the memories of the murders in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York, were still fresh. Media reports were still showing images of the victims and scenes of mourning.
The result is shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising. For years, despite the rising death toll, the gun lobby has continued to insist that guns were the foundation of the nation’s liberty — and none more than the deadliest of semi-automatic weapons.
Just days after the massacre of fourth graders in Uvalde, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre declared, “We know there can be no freedom, no security, no safety without the right of the law-abiding to bear arms for self-defense.”
And if that means that millions of Americans have to surrender other rights, including their right to life, and the freedom to live and move about without fear, that’s all right, as long as the nation is awash in firearms.
This is now the GOP orthodoxy, but it is still worth noting that this is a bizarre twist for the “law and order” party, and one that claims to be “pro-life.”
Consider that conservative Republicans never argued that we ought to “accept” attacks from Islamic terrorists as the price of freedom. They certainly do not think that urban violence or street crime is the acceptable price of living in an open, tolerant society.
They have never hesitated to support legislation that limits the rights of violent criminals; or to strip other national security threats of various civil liberties. (See the Patriot Act.) Conservatives continue to insist that we prioritize the right to life — include the rights of unborn children — over other personal freedoms.
Consider that conservative Republicans never argued that we ought to “accept” attacks from Islamic terrorists as the price of freedom.
But the polarities of our politics are reversed when it comes to mass murder by domestic gunmen. When a person armed with a gun walks into a synagogue, a grocery store, a nightclub, or a classroom filled with terrified children, the party of the mailed fist transforms itself into a champion of absolutist personal freedom. The “right to life party” becomes a party of depraved indifference to human life.
This is not a new position for talking heads on the right.
In 2017, after a gunman murdered more than that 50 people in Las Vegas, former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly declared that the carnage was “the price of freedom.”
“Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are,” O’Reilly wrote on his blog. “The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”
At the time, Ron Klain, who is now Joe Biden’s chief of staff, pushed back on O’Reilly’s claim that this kind of butchery was the price of freedom. “Never mind,” he wrote, “that other countries — England, France, Germany — manage to be ‘free countries’ without enduring anywhere near the number of mass killings that have become routine here.” Klain noted that over the previous 30 years, the U.S. had nearly twice the number of mass killings as 24 other industrialized nations combined. “For some reason,” he wrote, “freedom is this costly only in the United States.”
The cost continued to rise. In 2018, in an article that sought to explain why the AR-15 had become the nation’s most popular rifle, The New York Times noted that “for those who love the rifle, it is seen as a testament to freedom — a rite of passage shared between parents and children, a token to welcome soldiers home, a tradition shared with friends at the range.”
By then this symbol of freedom had been used in one mass murder after another: at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where 17 were killed; at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people died; at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where the gun was used to kill 49 people; in San Bernardino, California, where 14 were left dead; and, of course, the slaughter of 26 innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Since then, the death toll has mounted, and in any other civilized country would have been regarded as unconscionable: slaughters in Virginia Beach, El Paso, Dayton, San Jose, Boulder, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Uvalde.
And yet even after all of that — after all the scenes of grieving parents, makeshift memorials, funerals, anguished loved ones — 44 percent of Republicans are still willing to tell pollsters that this is “something we have to accept as part of a free society.”
To be sure, this is a minority view among Americans as a whole. In the CBS poll, only 28 percent of Americans said that we needed to accept mass killings; 72 percent said that the shootings were “something we can prevent and stop if we really tried.”
But on the gun issue, it is the minority that continues to call the shots.
As a result, more children will die and politicians will continue to call it “freedom.”