The most effective time to politicize tragedy, unfortunately, is in its immediate aftermath, and conservatives understand this better than anyone — that's why they're typically so quick to admonish people for doing so.
Once it was reported that a 64-year-old man named Stephen Paddock was the person who opened fire in Las Vegas Sunday night, killed 58 and injuring 500, the tide turned against “politicizing” the tragedy, perhaps because Paddock wasn't a Muslim or an undocumented immigrant. “Gun control is a legitimate issue,” said Fox News’ Howard Kurtz on Monday morning, “but for the Dems already raising it after Las Vegas massacre, could we just have a day before plunging in[?]” Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin echoed the sentiment: “To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs...You can't regulate evil…” Well, apologies to Gov. Bevin, but you actually can regulate evil, and the best time to do it is right after evil strikes.
Gun control is a legitimate issue, but for the Dems already raising it after Las Vegas massacre, could we just have a day before plunging in— HowardKurtz (@HowardKurtz) October 2, 2017
The idea that we shouldn’t “politicize” tragedies is a relatively new one that conservatives like to manipulate to their advantage. Trump, for example, used last year’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando — previously the most deadly shooting in American history, with 49 killed — as a reason to push his virulent brand of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. George W. Bush used 9/11 as a pretext for two wars as well as the massive expansion of the surveillance state. When it comes to guns, however, conservatives use the notion that we should wait days, weeks, or months to talk about the structural causes of mass shootings not out of any kind of respect for the victims but to slow momentum for any sort of action involving the tightening of gun restrictions. If we ever want to live in a better world, it is crucial to immediately highlight why these disasters are political in order to make sure those who die in mass shootings don’t do so in vain.
You actually can regulate evil, and the best time to do it is right after evil strikes.
On January 17, 1989, a man named Patrick Purdy opened fire on an elementary school playground in Stockton, California, killing five children and injuring 30 in a racially motivated attack carried out with a semi-automatic rifle — “a Chinese version of the AK-47,” according to the San Jose Mercury News — he bought legally in Oregon. Four months later, the state of California passed the country’s first assault weapons ban, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, previously an opponent of the measure.
But it wasn’t just liberal California, the site of the tragedy, that was moved to action. The next year, the Senate narrowly passed an amendment restricting assault weapons imports. One of the decisive votes was made by Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, a conservative Democrat. “As a direct result of this tragedy, I decided to investigate and review automatic weapons,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Prior to this event, I was a strong Second Amendment supporter who claimed that people, not weapons, were responsible for crimes." The next year, DeConcini’s own bill banning assault weapons was passed by the Senate on a 50-49 line. Four years later — when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency — the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which banned certain kinds of automatic and semi-automatic weapons such as “certain models” of AK-47s and AR-15s, was passed into law.
An even more obvious piece of evidence of the politicization of gun control working was the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which introduced federal background checks and the five-day waiting period. The bill was named for Jim Brady, the press secretary for Ronald Reagan who was partially paralyzed in the 1981 attempt on Reagan’s life by John Hinckley Jr. Brady, a lifelong Republican, was the face of the bill from its inception, and was seated next to President Bill Clinton when he signed the law.
What’s changed since the 102nd Congress, when those two laws were passed, is that there’s only been one other Congress (the 111th, in the first two years of the Obama presidency) in which Republicans haven’t controlled the presidency or at least one house of Congress. Control over any of these are effectively a veto power against new gun control measures and have been for decades, which is why both of those bills were conceived of years before they became law.
Of course, gun control is more of a band-aid than an ultimate solution for what ills us. Any legislation that should be offered has to take into account and combat the unconscionable militarization of the police, as well as the failures of previous attempts at controlling guns, one of which is that gun control has historically been used as a cudgel of oppression against people of color. In the ‘60s, both the NRA and then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan pushed a gun control bill based out of a fear of the increasingly armed Black Panther Party. (“There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” Reagan said at the time.)
A killing of any citizen in a public place is a political act.
There are many reasons why these shootings happen and all of them are political, from the visible lapses in our archaic gun laws, to the roots of the violence in a capitalist and white supremacist society that teaches people to hate and be indifferent towards the suffering of each other, especially women. A killing of any citizen in a public place is a political act. And as Brady and the assault weapons ban proved, these things take time, and so there’s no time to waste.
For a more recent and hopeful example of what effective and positive politicization looks like, one should look to the response of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, after a fire at a public housing project in London killed 80 people in June. Corbyn focused his critiques on the years of austerity that made infrastructure improvements impossible, calling the tragedy a “wake-up call.” One of Corbyn’s proposals in the aftermath was a requisitioning of homes left vacant by their wealthy owners as temporary housing for victims of the fire; while Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May rejected previously unheard of proposal, the government ultimately gave survivors of the fire housing in luxury apartments.
As Corbyn and the Brady law showed, the moment to politicize these tragedies is right after they happen, when they’re fresh on people’s minds and the violence is constantly visible around us. These moments should not be wasted on pointless niceties and empty calls for unity, but should be used for demanding action to prevent something like this from happening ever again, or at least not so damn often. As Tanya Gold wrote for the British magazine The New Statesman after the Grenfell disaster: “The worst horror is domestic. This feels like a reckoning. It should be.” We can only hope for a similar reckoning here.