Familiar gun debate plays out with more intensity after Vegas shooting

The U.S. Capitol dome backdrops a column of American flags standing at half-staff as the sun rises on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, at the foot of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington. President Donald Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset on October 6, 2017, to pay respect for the victims of the shooting at a country music concert Sunday night in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night has sparked a predictable debate over whether now is the right time to discuss gun control measures, but it has generated particularly heated and intense rhetoric on both sides that experts warn is more likely to foment division than unity.

The day after the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history, in which 59 people were killed and more than 500 were injured, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has aggressively advocated gun control since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, issued a statement demanding that this time be different than the hundreds of mass shootings before it that have resulted in no legislative activity.

This must stop. It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren't public policy responses to this epidemic,” he said. “There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something."

As he did after the mass shooting in Orlando last June, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., refused to participate in the House moment of silence Monday.

“Now is not a moment for silence; it’s a time for action,” he said on Twitter.

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., blasted her Republican colleagues who “are too busy lining their pockets with cash from the gun lobby to notice the blood on their hands.”

Celebrities have made impassioned and accusatory pleas for change on social media and on television.

“Prayers are important but @SpeakerRyan @realDonaldTrump blood is on the hands of those who have power to legislate,” wrote Lady Gaga.


For the second time in a few weeks, ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel has become embroiled in a political issue, taking a firm stance on gun control on Monday night, much as he did with health care.

"When someone with a beard attacks us, we tap phones, we invoke travel bans, we build walls, we take every possible precaution to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “But when an American buys a gun and kills other Americans, then there’s nothing we can do about that."

Seth Meyers excoriated Congress for its inaction on his NBC show too.

“Because when you say, which you always say, ‘Now it’s not the time to talk about it,’ what you really mean is ‘There is never a time to talk about it,” he said. “And it would be such more honest if you would just admit that your plan is to never talk about it and never take any action.”

Their comments reflected the frustration felt by many liberals and gun control advocates who have resigned themselves to continued gridlock. Twitter posts about the shooting were often emotional and angry, lashing out at gun rights lobbyists and Republican lawmakers for standing in the way of what they see as common sense restrictions on firearms.

In one extreme case, an attorney working for CBS wrote on Facebook that she has no hope that “Repugs” will back gun control, adding “I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are Republican gun toters.” She was fired.

There have been extreme comments on the right as well.

Televangelist Pat Robertson told his audience Monday that the shooting was somehow the result of “profound disrespect for our president” and disrespect for the national anthem.

Some conservative websites and Twitter accounts misidentified the shooter and circulated false information claiming he was a liberal motivated by opposition to President Trump and accusing the left of having blood on its hands.

The White House dismissed calls for a national debate on gun control Monday.

“There will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment,” said Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

President Trump echoed that sentiment on Tuesday morning, telling reporters, “We’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by.”

Trump has rarely exhibited such patience himself when a crime or a terrorist attack presented an opportunity to advance his agenda.

Early in his presidential campaign, he seized upon the murder of Kate Steinle allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant just two days after it occurred to bolster his stance on illegal immigration.

"This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it,” he said in a statement at the time. “Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won't happen if I become President."

Trump also waited only a few days after a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California to demand “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. in response to it in December 2015. He has revived that issue again in the aftermath of several other attacks around the world.

Hours after a gunman inspired by ISIS killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, Trump took to Twitter to congratulate himself for recognizing the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.

The morning after a driver plowed a van into a crowd in Barcelona in August, killing 13 and injuring more than 130 others, Trump complained about the judicial system blocking his policies.

“Radical Islamic Terrorism must be stopped by whatever means necessary!” he said. “The courts must give us back our protective rights. Have to be tough!”

On the same morning a terrorist attempted to detonate a bomb on a subway train in London last month, Trump tweeted that tougher policies are need to deal with “loser terrorists” before promoting his own stalled order to bar travelers from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

“The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific-but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!” he tweeted.

Experts on political rhetoric say it is unrealistic to expect a tragic event to go unpoliticized in the current environment.

“It is impossible to quell politicization of events like these, regardless of how irresponsible it is,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University. “Politicians see personal advantage in not only turning such an event into political advantage, but they also see an advantage in commenting before their opponents do.”

He cited Rahm Emanuel’s 2008 comment that "You never let a serious crisis go to waste” as a sentiment that has become “a rhetorical item of faith” for politicians.

“The Las Vegas massacre proves to the left the need for gun control and with such this never would have happened,” Vatz, author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: The Agenda-Spin Model,” said. “To the Republicans, it proves that if there had been better security in the Mandalay Hotel this never would have happened; more gun control would have no effect. Both are incorrect; the massacre proves neither of these points.”

To an extent, both sides are seen as just going through the motions, making the statements they are expected to make.

“It’s all ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Michael Cornfield, an associate professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and director of the Public Echoes of Rhetoric in America Project, referring to the film in which Bill Murray’s character relives the same day over and over.

That is not to suggest lawmakers’ words are insincere, merely that they likely have little expectation of changing anyone’s mind.

“I think both sides are sincere,” Cornfield said. “The people who want more regulations of guns and the people who purchase them are genuinely outraged…. What we’ve heard is largely familiar and, even on Trump’s part, it’s largely irrelevant to how policy gets made on guns.”

Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of corporate communication at Southern Methodist University, described it as a political or rhetorical ritual.

“What you have are moments of expected performance that our politicians go through where they say and do things that are meant to engender in the audience, in the citizen certain kinds of responses,” she said.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. She noted the dissonance when Trump failed to offer the expected full-throated condemnation of the violence in Charlottesville last month.

“If it doesn’t happen, there would be a gaping hole in the discourse,” she said.

The most strongly-worded statements often come from lawmakers whose seats are relatively safe and whose constituents are known to be supportive of their stance.

“Leaders who are in more dangerous places, they don’t say anything,” Martin said. “They wait and see.”

As moderate leaders get crowded out by their parties’ more extreme flanks, partisan reactions to these events only exacerbate the nation’s political division.

“Although the country has been divided forever, we are more polarized than ever before with all major events moving us further and further apart,” Vatz said.

Public opinion on gun control is complicated and at times contradictory.

A 2016 Quinnipiac University poll found 93 percent of Americans, including 90 percent of Republicans, support requiring background checks for all gun purchases. However, only 42 percent of Republicans believe such a policy would reduce gun violence.

A ban on assault weapons drew support from 59 percent of respondents, but 49 percent said it would be ineffective in preventing gun violence. Only 47 percent said it would be effective.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year found that only 32 percent of Republicans consider gun violence to be a “very big” problem, and only 27 percent of Republicans said stricter gun laws would lead to fewer mass shootings.

In the past, there has also been an enthusiasm gap on the issue. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, those who support less restrictive gun laws are twice as likely as gun control supporters to only vote for candidates who share their gun views.

According to Cornfield, the dynamics of the gun debate are different from other issues like immigration and national security. You have one powerful industry profiting, the gun manufacturers, but the costs are spread across different populations and none of the gun control advocacy groups can match the influence of the National Rifle Association.

“You have a very organized, persistent lobby opposing new regulations and you don’t have an organized opposition on the other side,” he said.

The other side does apparently now have television stars with large nightly audiences in its corner, though. While celebrities weighing in on tragic events is nothing new, Cornfield said the current outsized role of late night hosts right now is unique.

“The late night talk show host’s role has largely been to make fun of people…. Kimmel’s going beyond that. Kimmel is advocating,” he said.

Whether that advocacy is effective is a different question.

“People who are for gun control feel affirmed...,” Martin said. “People who think that the problem is x, y or z other things…they just say now you’re lecturing me and now I hate Jimmy Kimmel. They just dig their heels in further.”

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