Republicans' responsibility for gun violence

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas left at least 59 dead and more than 500 injured, McConnell insisted that it was “entirely premature to be discussing about legislative solutions” to America's gun-violence epidemic. PHOTO: AFP

After the mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 1, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that, "It's particularly inappropriate to politicise an event like this. It just happened within the last day and a half."

With 59 dead and more than 500 injured, McConnell insisted that it was "[e]ntirely premature to be discussing about legislative solutions" to America's gun-violence epidemic. His party's legislative priority, he added, would continue to be tax cuts.

McConnell's response was fully in keeping with the Republican Party's stance on gun violence. It is disheartening, however, that none of the reporters assembled in front of McConnell so much as tried to call him out on his position.

It would not have been unreasonable to ask the Senate majority leader: "If you think it is premature now, then when do you think the right time will be? Could you provide a timetable?" Nor would it be unreasonable to question the premise that Democrats are "politicising" a tragedy. After all, claiming politicisation has been the go-to Republican talking point after every gun massacre for decades now.

McConnell and his Republican colleagues should have to explain why they will not even discuss policy solutions to the scourge of gun violence in America, instead of being allowed to continue pursuing their transparent efforts simply to avoid the issue of gun control. And they must be held accountable for their positions, which reflect an instinct, both telling and chilling, to view any discussion about gun violence as a political issue, offering an opportunity to score partisan points, rather than as a policy and public-safety issue.

One could argue that the repeated mass shootings in the United States over the past few decades have all had a Republican stamp on them. After every (predictable) tragedy, the party mobilises to block any legislation that might strengthen gun controls. In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress went so far as to threaten to defund the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention if it even tried to study gun violence. Until the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, the CDC was forced to abstain from conducting any such research.

The response to the Las Vegas shooting from Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, has been to dismiss the issue of guns, and to instead frame the tragedy as primarily a mental-health issue. Accordingly, Ryan has been breathily touting reforms to the mental-health system that Republicans supposedly worked on in the past.

But Ryan chose not to mention the fact that, this past February, his Republican colleagues (and four Democrats) in the Senate voted to revoke a rule requiring the Social Security Administration to report the names of mentally-disabled Social Security recipients to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. After that vote, US President Donald Trump repealed the rule, allowing mentally ill individuals to purchase deadly firearms without hindrance.

Ryan also neglected to mention that his party's repeated efforts to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") included plans to defund mental-health programmes, and to eliminate a rule requiring insurance companies and Medicaid to provide mental-health treatments.

Journalists and pundits tend to be vague when assessing culpability in this distinctly American tale. They blame the failure to address America's gun-violence problem on Congress, the "Washington establishment," or the political system as a whole. Such manufactured even-handedness is tantamount to "fake news." It is time to call a spade a spade: the Republican Party is overwhelmingly responsible.

Consider the issue of "bump stocks," the gun modification that the perpetrator of the Las Vegas massacre used to be able to fire faster. Some Republican senators have now drawn praise for indicating that they will support a ban on the device. But when Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein proposed a similar ban in 2013, Republicans overwhelmingly opposed her. After decades of such staunch opposition to any semblance of gun control, the small amount of flexibility Republicans are showing on banning bump stocks—which will just make killing with semi-automatic weapons slightly slower—should not be reason for high praise.

To be sure, some congressional Democrats and independents have occasionally joined with Republicans in blocking gun-control legislation. But there is a fundamental difference: Democrats who oppose gun controls do so in defiance of their party's official programme, whereas Republicans do so in conformity with theirs. As a result, the degree of culpability between the parties is not even close. For evidence of this, one need only follow the money. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2016, the National Rifle Association (NRA) donated USD 52.6 million to electoral campaigns, of which just USD 265—yes, you read that right—went to Democratic candidates. McConnell received USD 1.3 million from the NRA in 2016 alone.

After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a lone gunman murdered 26 schoolchildren and their teachers, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, proposed a bill to require universal background checks on all commercial gun purchases. The Manchin Amendment failed to gain the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Just four of the 54 senators who voted in favour of the bill were Republicans; only five of the 46 senators who voted against it were Democrats.

Mass murderers such as Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas, and countless others pulled the trigger. But the Republican Party acted as a political accomplice to all of these murderous acts.

Yasheng Huang is Professor of Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017. 

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