After a tragedy is the best time to talk about issues

By Edridge D'Souza

(Ali Rizvi/McClatchy/TNS)

As usual, The Onion delivered. Following the Las Vegas shooting last week, and of course, the ensuing political games regarding the issue of gun control, the satirical news agency released an article titled “White House: ‘This Is Not The Geologic Era To Debate Gun Control.’” Like all good satire, it touches an uncomfortable nerve – that in the United States, the pro-gun lobby has steered the national conversation away from even addressing the debate. The Onion article was inspired by the real-life statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Now is not the time to talk about gun control.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the pro-gun lobby have been remarkably effective at convincing the general public that the aftermath of tragedy is the wrong time to discuss gun laws. Following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, President Obama was accused of politicizing the tragedy to enact a political agenda. The lobby, along with its affiliated spokespeople and politicians, spread the idea that in the aftermath of a shooting, the prudent thing to do is to wait and simply not talk about it.

Of course, this is brilliant from a strategic standpoint. In order to avoid scrutiny, regulations or accountability, it’s simply genius to convince the public (and politicians) to not talk about the issue. By the time the tragedy has faded from the public consciousness, so has the will to do anything about it. The NRA’s tactic is simply to delay the debate until the public is less invested in the outcome.

Yes, it is important not to have knee-jerk laws as a reaction to catastrophe. The Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to become involved in two foreign wars and to vastly expand the surveillance state under the Patriot Act. Sometimes, politicians do exploit tragedies to enact specific agendas. In the infamous words attributed to Rahm Emanuel, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Political opportunism is nothing new.

That being said, it’s ridiculous to assert that the aftermath of a tragedy is the wrong time to talk about policy. Ignoring the issue of whether increased gun control measures would be effective in preventing mass shootings, the point of an educated populace is that we all have some level of civic engagement. When something big occurs, it follows that the public will want to talk about it, and it’s not unreasonable to think that passing new laws may sometimes be appropriate.

This is not a foreign concept to Republicans. Donald Trump himself has exploited knee-jerk reactions to tragedies. During his 2016 Republican National Convention speech, he used the murder of Kate Steinle as a reason to crack down on sanctuary cities; the proposed “Kate’s Law” even passed in the House this past June. Suffice it to say that the GOP has no real issue with politicizing the aftermath of a tragedy as long as it suits their policy interests. When the issue in question involves the NRA, however, it seems like this sort of talk is suddenly off-limits.

An effective politician knows that, as unsavory as it might be, the aftermath of a tragedy is sometimes the only time people are truly willing to listen about an issue. In terms of public discourse, if a lawmaker needs focus on an important issue, the best thing possible is to have the public pay attention. That’s why it’s somewhat ridiculous to hear the assertion that we shouldn’t breathe a word about gun laws following a mass shooting. Sure, it may be wrong to capitalize on a shooting in order to, for instance, repeal the Second Amendment and crack down on civil liberties. However, shutting down conversations on relatively popular policy proposals, such as universal background checks or gun buybacks, only serves to stifle discourse and prevent the best ideas from spreading. The aftermath of tragedy is a time in which we must have the option to debate whether the current rules of our society are working or not.

This principle is familiar to us even on the local level, and it doesn’t need to be gun-related. At the University of Massachusetts, following the death of a student in the confidential informant program, there was widespread discourse that ultimately led to increased scrutiny of the program, a professional panel evaluation of its efficacy and its ultimate disbandment. Yes, the death of a student is always a tragedy, but an event like this is the best opportunity to seriously examine whether current policies are effective, in order to prevent more people from harm.
Sometimes, we may find that no policy is needed, and that the tragedy in question is a one-off event. Other times, we may find that the tragedy could have been prevented by a policy change, and we change policies to prevent a repeat in the future. In either case, the important point is that we have the opportunity to at least talk about it. The NRA and gun lobbyists employ the unfair tactic of shutting down debate and discourse because they are well aware that less than half of voters support them. While their strategy of shutting down debate is clever from a public relations perspective, the ultimate loser is the American public.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]