As Americans spent today digesting the brutal facts and gut-wrenching images of yet another school shooting today, a familiar cycle of grief and hand-wringing began afresh. Why? Who is to blame? Is there anything we can do to keep this from happening again?
For decades, it has been the conventional wisdom inside Washington that the gun control debate is over. The gun control movement reached its high-water mark in the 1980s, and has been subsiding ever since.The federal assault weapon ban of 1994 was allowed to sunset ten years later. Politicians from both parties accepted the National Rifle Association’s platform and took its money.
In the intervening years, as the deadly shooting sprees continued, year after year, the political discourse has been more or less unchanged. Each new bloody incident is greeted with a mournful shrug: These things happen. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
There’s real truth to the argument of gun control opponents that if you restrict access to firearms, deranged killers will resort to knives. But a juxtaposition of tragedies today makes the limitations of that argument painfully clear.
At 8 a.m. this morning, a 36-year-old man named Min Yingjun entered a primary school in Chengping, in central China, and proceeded to stab 22 schoolchildren and one adult with a knife.
But here’s the difference between a mass stabbing and a mass shooting with a Bushmaster .223: In Chengping, nobody died. Only nine of the injured students were hospitalized. Only two were seriously injured.
As the New York Times reports, in Newtown the math was very different:
Eighteen of the students were pronounced dead at the school, and two others were taken to hospitals where they were declared dead. All the adults shot at the school were pronounced dead at the scene.
It may be that the stark contrast between these two outcomes, just hours apart will provide a platform to reopen the gun control debate that bipartisan consensus has long deemed closed.
It may be. But Barack Obama won’t be leading the charge, if his speech this afternoon is any indication. Conspicuously wiping his eyes throughout, Obama explicitly framed his address as a message from the nation’s griever-in-chief. “I react not as a President, but as anybody else would,” he said. “As a parent.”
The speech included a brief allusion to the possibility of an actual policy response —
“We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” Obama said — but then veered immediately back on course:
“This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.”
The president assumes that what the country wants performative grief, not political action. It may be that that calculus holds true, as it has for decades, in the wake of massacre after massacre. But a lot of people are hoping not. Slate’s Allison Benedikt summed up the reaction of many this afternoon when she announced her own response to the speech with a tweet:
“Fuck your tears, Obama.”