For a brief moment following the shooting in Arizona, it really seemed like a consensus was forming within the liberal (and parts of the mainstream) media and blogosphere; that the violent rightwing rhetoric which has become standard feature of our political discourse had finally gone too far, and that we as a nation were finally due for some rhetorical climate change.
All of that seemed to change abruptly within a few days, as most conservatives circled their wagons, refusing to renounce or even criticize the worst of their colleagues, and the attention of the liberal media and blogosphere abruptly shifted to the theme of gun control. Nowhere was this shift more apparent than on The Rachel Maddow show, which has been hammering on the gun control drum every night. As a fan of Rachel’s radio and television shows, I’ve been struggling to understand why she seems to be taking on this issue to the point of appearing obsessive.
Maybe this is part of a larger defensive reaction, or a political retreat, in the face of the theme of false equivalency that gained traction within the mainstream media following the shooting, as we began to see criticism of violent rightwing rhetoric couched in a familiar “both sides have gone too far-” context. Perhaps she decided that, since the mainstream media appeared unwilling to confront violent rightwing rhetoric directly, pushing for additional gun control measures amounted to making lemonade out of political lemons.
Or maybe she views this as a strategic opportunity to embarrass conservatives, thinking that the Arizona shooting could create pressure on the Democrats to introduce a gun control measure that Republican lawmakers will look stupid and callous opposing. To be fair, I suppose it’s also possible that this could be a matter of genuine conviction instead of political calculation (maybe I just never noticed her attention to this issue previously).
Whatever her reasons, it just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not going to make any assumptions about where most other members of this community stand on the issue of gun control, but I think Rachel’s approach is a mistake for several reasons.
The question of whether or not most gun control measures are actually effective certainly deserves more attention than I am qualified to give it ( interestingly, meaningful scientific examination of this question is completely absent from much of the debate). I will say that discussion on this issue tends to be emotional rather than reality-based, with many gun rights enthusiasts refusing to agree with positions most of us consider reasonable, and many gun control enthusiasts essentially anthropomorphizing firearms through an obsessive focus on the presence of the weapons themselves rather than on the individual impulses or societal influences that lead to their misuse.
It’s also true that a more significant degree of technical and factual inaccuracy goes unchallenged in this debate than on almost any other subject (case in point: the newly-acclaimed Clinton-era assault weapons ban, which, ignoring technically-accurate distinctions, ended up basically targeting guns that looked particularly-scary). Rachel Maddow demonstrates the same technical ignorance common among many gun control enthusiasts through her apparent failure to understand the difference between semi-automatic and fully-automatic weapons, and her use of “clip” when she means “magazine.” While some people might not see this as important, I think it illustrates how facts tend to be disregarded in this debate, and I don’t believe that Rachel would be that careless with fact-checking and her use of terminology when addressing other subjects.
I also think that proponents like Rachel are being fairly coy when they dismiss gun rights enthusiasts’ fears about a slippery slope in the face of calls for reasonable-sounding gun control measures, such as bans on high-capacity pistol magazines. Gun rights enthusiasts have opposed other similarly reasonable-sounding measures (background checks, waiting periods) because they feared that these measures allowed a foot in the door that would simply lead to further restriction of gun rights. The problem for Rachel is that there is truth to this stepping stone argument; previous gun control measures have almost always been lauded by proponents as “good first steps.”
Along with others, Rachel has been focusing on the 30-round magazine used by the Arizona shooter, correctly arguing that if he had been limited to a standard 15-round magazine, fewer people would have been hurt or killed. High-capacity magazines might make for a convenient rallying cry, but let’s be honest: they themselves are not the real issue for gun control enthusiasts. In reality, if the Arizona shooter had been limited to a 15-round magazine that day, there’s no reason to think that similar arguments would not still have been made: if not calling for bans on 15-round pistol magazines, then on “semi-automatic” weapons, or on handguns themselves (historically a favorite target of gun control enthusiasts).
I’m no fan of the NRA, but that doesn’t mean I’m buying into their being a bogey-man, along with their mysterious corollary, “the gun lobby.” The simple truth is that the American cultural divide on this issue is profound: roughly half of us own firearms, and the most vocal of those who don’t own firearms would like to see them banned completely. This makes the issue of gun control a political dead-end, and something that most democrats have learned to avoid for good reason.
Focusing on gun control at this point in our history makes little sense from a liberal-left perspective. It’s politically stupid in that it pushes many independents (and Democrats) into the arms of the Right by reinforcing the narrative that liberals are ultimately pushing to ban all firearms, and it misses an opportunity to actually salvage something positive out of the Arizona shooting by forcing a national dialogue over the mainstreaming of violent political rhetoric.
Although these renewed calls for gun control may be intended to put conservatives on the defensive, in a weird way I think it actually lets them off the hook – vindicating the purveyors of violent rhetoric who argue that both the blame and the path to preventing future shootings lie elsewhere. Rachel Maddow seems to believe that this path leads in the direction of additional gun control measures, rather than in working to create a more constructive, reality-based political discourse.