The Media

Why Nothing Changed After the Shooting That Changed Everything

Ten years after Sandy Hook, the right is still repeating its line about not “politicizing shootings.” And it’s still working.

White balloons hang from the Sandy Hook School sign
The day after. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On Tuesday, not long after an 18-year-old man shot and killed at least 21 people, including 19 children, in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kellyanne Conway went on Fox News to offer the world some unsolicited advice. “I just want to warn the political people, Republicans and Democrats, which includes a lot of people in the media: Don’t stomp on these innocent children tonight to make your political points,” the former Trump adviser said. “Let’s get the facts and the information.”

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Conway wasn’t the only one to issue this warning. “If you are attempting to politicize the senseless murder of 14 innocent children right now, you should probably stop,” conservative activist Charlie Kirk tweeted. “Inevitably when there’s a murderer of this kind, you see politicians try to politicize it, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

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If you hadn’t seen what happened after the last several decades’ worth of mass shootings (up to and including the one that occurred 12 days ago in Buffalo, New York), perhaps these admonitions could be interpreted as anodyne, even benevolent, pleas for humanity and decency in the face of an objectively terrible thing. Except the rate of armed massacres in America has gotten to the point that, if we were to wait as long as Conway, Kirk, and Cruz might like to discuss state and national policies surrounding guns, we would immediately have to pipe down again, because there will have been another mass shooting.

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It doesn’t take great insight to understand this rhetorical maneuver: By characterizing the people raising public policy concerns as insensitive vultures who want to “stomp on innocent children” in order to score political points, conservatives hope to narrow the parameters of acceptable post-massacre discourse to thoughts on the one side, prayers on the other side, and arming teachers to the teeth in the middle. In so doing, they hope to delay the moment for reckoning with gun control until after any public horror has died down.

It will probably not surprise you that I do not think that framing the ongoing pattern of mass shootings in America as a policy crisis counts as “politicizing” the tragedies at all, at least insofar as that term is pejorative. The big-picture questions surrounding gun policy in the United States and the ways in which these policies are linked to mass shootings are valid and necessary and must be asked, even in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting—by reporters on the ground, by pundits and journalists observing the tragedy from afar, by Democratic politicians (almost no one on the other side is doing it), and by engaged citizens who understand how public policy can affect private life in the United States.

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Right-wing political figures are correct about one thing, and I don’t think we should pretend otherwise: It does feel horrible to take mourners out of their grief, to ask them, along with a grieving country, to pivot toward bigger questions of how and why and who allowed this. But we also have to. I know because I met those people, and saw them grapple with those questions, 10 years ago, after the horrific mass shooting that should have changed everything.

Here is what was said on Dec. 14, 2012, the day Adam Lanza killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, and who said it. “You’ve got a horrible event here, and they’re already looking to politicize it,” Rush Limbaugh said. “These people look at stuff like this as an opportunity—it’s sickening—to advance their agenda or blame conservatives.” This, more or less, was the line from many on the right. It was telling that Limbaugh chose “politicizing” as the left’s monstrous act, because he was politicizing things himself, adding calls for gun control to the ongoing right-wing depiction of liberals and the media as coldhearted monsters who wouldn’t even give mourners time to grieve before twisting their sorrow to fit an agenda.

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Not long after Limbaugh said this from his studio, I was on the ground in Newtown, where things were a little different. I was on the crime beat for Slate at the time, and within hours of the shooting I had rented a car and driven to Newtown. I arrived at a town caught in spasms of despair, broadcast by my peers for the entire world to see. Camera trucks were everywhere, and so were reporters who, like me, had come to repackage Newtown’s trauma into a comprehensible story.

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On a personal level, I truly was discomfited by my presence there. It did feel exploitative to pepper the townspeople with questions, to see their tears filmed for a nightly newscast. On a professional level, though, I understood why the press had come to town—and that our presence there was serving a greater purpose. Though locals had the most proximate reasons for grief, the sorrow and senselessness of the tragedy was felt all around the world. We, and everyone, had to face this thing head-on.

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The Newtown shooting was news, and reporters gather and present the news even and especially when it is uncomfortable for them to do so. Reporters who cover mass shootings push through the discomfort and the fear of being thought exploitative because their presence serves a greater good. They are there to ask the questions about which the public is curious, to obtain the answers that the public wants to know, even questions—yes, questions about guns—that might make some people uncomfortable. The people I encountered during the week that I spent in and out of Newtown were traumatized and sad and sometimes irritated at the media presence there. But they, like the rest of us, like everyone seeking to parse and process every mass shooting, mostly wanted to understand one major question: How and why did this happen?

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I’m describing what I saw as a journalist in Newtown, but I don’t mean to suggest that the media and the Democratic politicians now talking about gun control have the same role or agenda here. The overlap between many journalists and many Democrats on matters of gun control—especially in the wake of mass shootings—is not, to me, a matter of the media being compromised by the left-wing agenda so much as it reflects a link between policy and tragedy that is so obvious that the only people who do not see it are those who have chosen to close their eyes.

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At Sandy Hook, at Uvalde, and at most of the comparable mass shootings in the intervening decade, the answers to the questions of the how and the why span both the personal and the political. The personal answers satisfy the immediate how and why: a troubled loner, a grudge or vendetta or hateful ideology, a gun in the house, a horrific plan brought to fruition. The political answers provide the connective tissue that helps link the how and why of an individual incident with that of every other incident in the set. Asking the sorts of questions that can accurately situate a mass shooting within a political context, and then drawing connections with the contexts of other, similar shootings, is how the public begins to understand why these horrible things keep happening.

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It is not “politicization” when, just after a mass shooting, reporters and pundits spotlight the laws and policies that provide for quick and easy access to semi-automatic weapons, identify the lawmakers who consistently vote for and support these laws while thwarting any meaningful attempts at gun control, and surface the ties between these lawmakers and the special interest groups that fund their campaigns. Bringing these factors to light counts as good reporting that explains the broader pattern—and, right now, the pattern of mass shootings in America is as much of a tragedy as any single incident within it.

In order to avoid having to engage with this pattern, right-wing politicians consistently try to categorize these sorts of big-picture questions as insensitive or exploitative, as per their ongoing strategies of deflection by which they attempt to portray the mainstream media and Democrats as the real villains of every news story ever told. It would be folly to treat every new mass shooting in America as a completely isolated incident unrelated to other, preceding mass shootings, and yet that, effectively, is what smarm merchants such as Conway would have the media do.

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The only people who are served when we don’t talk about guns after a mass shooting are the political actors who would rather not be held to account for their support of the policies that enable mass murder on a regular basis. “Don’t politicize the tragedy” is a refrain of the complicit. It is always and invariably a method of deflection meant to shame and inhibit the media from doing its job and pointing out the obvious links between the ease with which guns can be acquired in many American states, the rabid opposition among many Republican politicians to even the most meager gun-control measures, and the frequency of mass shootings in America. It’s not insensitive to point these things out in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. That’s exactly when these things should be pointed out.

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On the evening of the Sandy Hook shooting, Connecticut’s then-Gov. Dannel Malloy spoke from the pulpit of St. Rose of Lima Church to a room packed with mourners desperate to understand the how and the why of the tragedy. “Understand that a test is just that,” Malloy said. “That which we rise to and answer.” Within months, Malloy had shepherded a suite of new gun control laws through the state legislature, while many of the Sandy Hook victims’ parents had made themselves into lobbyists advocating for gun control across the country. This haste was not politicization; it was swift and justifiable action taken in direct response to an unimaginable event.

Ten years later, horrors like these have become all too imaginable, and the hope that they might ever spark any lasting political change has faded to a faint shadow. Meaningful efforts at gun control, Americans have learned, do not happen overnight, and rarely happen at all. Put simply, a lot of Republican voters really like guns, and do not like the prospect of being told what to do with their guns or having to jump through hoops to own or purchase them. They especially like the AR-style semi-automatic rifles that fall into the “modern sporting rifle” category. (The term “modern sporting rifle” was created by the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 2009 in a bid to rebrand the sorts of rifles that had often previously been referred to as assault rifles.) These people, who largely see themselves as responsible gun owners, do not think that they should have to cede any of their own gun-related freedoms just because there are a lot of mass shootings in America. They certainly see this issue as political.

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In an electoral system where members of Congress stand for reelection every two years and most sitting Republicans live in constant fear of being primaried from the right, conservative legislators have no incentive to rile up the base and the NRA by taking anything other than a hard-line position on legislation that likely won’t go anywhere anyway. And if they are possibly shame-able on these issues, they’d rather change the conversation than find out. In America, the only people who are ever able to successfully politicize mass shootings are the ones who have their own reasons for having you think these tragedies aren’t political at all; that they are effectively natural disasters that cannot be predicted or controlled, for which the only response is sorrow and the only recourse is prayer.

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