Framing the Issue

Guns are the issue du jour right now, thanks to yet another school shooting (Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida) that resulted in multiple deaths. We’ve had lots of mass shootings in America in recent years, and we’ve also had a well-documented cycle of reactions that lead, eventually, to…nothing. No matter the number of innocent people killed, or the circumstances in which they’ve been killed, the cycle has been the same: outrage, intense scrutiny in the media for a week or less, calls for gun control, calls for mental health reform, lots of grandstanding and then…nothing. Until the next time, usually within a month or two, when the cycle starts anew and we all get a little number, shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Is there a good comedy on Netflix to lighten the mood?”

The most recent shooting seems to have a slightly different feel. Mainly that’s due to teenagers. It ends up that some of the kids in the high school that was the scene of the shooting are actually quite articulate, and they’re impassioned, and they’re inspiring a lot of people to speak out for gun control. They’re so effective that the Fox News and NRA crowd are accusing them of being “crisis actors” (whatever the hell that is), which is an amazingly extreme form of victim blaming, not to mention picking on kids, which can only backfire on them in the long run.

When you think about it, this is an amazing turn of events. The pro-gun folks, led by the NRA and their media arm at Fox News, have been amazingly effective at framing the gun control debate for the last generation. No matter how serious the shooting, they always have a plan for framing the debate so that it moves away from gun control and ends up at promoting gun rights and identifying mental health reform as the only viable solution for ending mass shootings. The debate quickly devolves into a bunch of shouting, everyone becomes entrenched in their familiar positions, and within days we have a society that’s lost interest/given up. These kids seem to have at least ensured we’ll be paying attention longer, and that’s obviously a good thing and I’m heartened by their activism, but I’ve been around long enough that I’m highly skeptical their efforts will lead to a radically different conclusion.

My skepticism stems from the gun lobby’s skill in framing the debate. Of late their primary tack has been to say that in addition to mental health reform, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy(s) with a gun around. Because the current focus is on schools and the latest tweak to their scheme is to propose arming a certain number of teachers as the best line of defense against an armed attacker. It’s no surprise that this “solution,” which President Trump has endorsed, has generated a heated backlash and unfortunately, I think this reaction is the turning point that could lead us closer to where we always end up – doing nothing – than to see any substantive change in terms of alleviating gun violence.

I seriously doubt the gun lobby, Fox News pundits, and President Trump, ever truly believed that arming teachers was a proposal that would see the light of day. What they did believe was that it would frame the debate; it would signify the worst possible idea from the perspective of gun control advocates, and stake out a negotiating position for the gun lobby that would allow them to compromise and accept a proposal that would calm the gun control people and still be acceptable to gun proponents. I don’t know what that is, and obviously, it’s better than nothing, but I expect that if you see anything happen at all, it will be closer to nothing than to a solution.

It sucks being pessimistic, and I truly am glad to see these kids getting engaged, but I think we’d seriously be mistaken if we thought this was going to lead to revolutionary change. I guess a more positive outlook would be this: maybe we’re seeing the first step in evolutionary change.

For the sake of innocent bystanders everywhere, I hope that’s the case.

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