Right before President Obama gave his statement on today's shooting, Jessica Yellin of CNN prefaced it by saying, "At this point, we know how President Obama usually handles these kinds of situations." I could rant about political prognosticators dissecting the speeches of politicians right after a tragedy of this magnitude, but I think that misses the point.
The real outrage is that Jessica Yellin was right: Barack Obama has given so many of these "mourner-in-chief" address that he we now know the standard procedure for how it happens. It goes a little something like this:
1. National gun-related tragedy occurs, 20+ people die
2. The media scrambles to churn out as much information (regardless of accuracy) as fast as possible
3. Liberals jump on the earliest reports and scramble for Facebook and MSNBC to shriek for tighter gun control laws
4. Conservatives get unreasonably defensive and complain that we don't need new laws, just better enforcement of the ones we have now (or worse: more guns. Because we all know 6-year-olds could have defended themselves if they only had firearms in class)
5. "Moderates" blast both groups for "politicizing a tragedy" and say that we should be there for the victims and put off the debate until later
6. President Obama goes on TV, says nothing of any policy substance but tries to relate to it console the nation
7. Facts about the case become known, with pundits on one of the two sides claiming vindication for their earlier gut reaction
8. Flags fly at half staff for a week, funerals occur
9. Two months go by without any conversation actually taking place
10. See Step 1.
I don't know which of those 10 steps I find the most appalling, but I know that I'm sickened by the fact that both CNN and I can actually spell them out. In the past I've heard that such tragedies justified as being rare, freak occurrences. I used to believe that, but it's getting harder to continue with the way things have been going.
I was still a kid back then, but I'm pretty sure that (subtracting 9/11-related speeches) George Bush did not give as many of these mourning addresses in eight years as Barack Obama has given in four. President Obama has given one of these "freak tragedy" responses for every year of his presidency, and 2012 has been the worst year of all. If it happens at least once a year, I don't think you can use words like "freak" or rare" to describe it (maybe we should be calling them "annual tragedies"?)
But while tragedies like this make me want to point to "a growing epidemic of gun violence in this country" and demand action, I can't because there simply isn't one. The strangest thing to me is that despite these major tragedies spiking during the Obama administration, the overall rate of gun violence has been steadily dropping. As a numbers guy, this frustrates me. Our eyes make it very clear there is a growing problem, but the data just doesn't support it. And to top that off, Connecticut (where the shootings took place) have some of the tightest gun laws in America.
So does that mean liberals are right and we need to overhaul our "outdated" firearm regulations? Or does it mean conservatives are right and these are just failures of enforcement? I don't know, and I think most people who claim to probably don't either. But I also think it doesn't matter, because it's pretty clear what the next step should be.
We need a national dialogue about our gun policies, because we haven't really had one in a long time. Nobody can look at what's been going on the past four years and say everything is perfect the way it is. Whether you think we need new laws or better enforcement of current ones, we should all be able to agree that our nation's policies towards guns could stand to be revisited. Should we maybe wait a week to start, both to cool down and show respect for the victim's families? Absolutely. And is it wrong to use a tragedy to push a specific political agenda of strict gun control? I would argue it is. But to totally depoliticize tragedies--to the point that we don't even talk about them in a political setting--when there might be a preventative policy remedy, misses the point of having a democratic society make laws.
Whether you're a liberal who supports a big government or a conservative who supports a small one, we all can agree that one of the quintessential roles of that government is to keep us safe--and that it can do that job better. I'm not tied to an ideological agenda enough to claim I have the answers. I won't pretend to know what specific remedy will come out of a thoughtful review of our gun policies, and I think anyone who does is doing a disservice to the process. But I do know that it's time we have one, and that we'll be facing even more tragedies like this in the future if we don't.
This op-ed was originally published on the blog of the American University College Democrats.