On Wednesday, a 19-year-old in Parkland, Florida, entered his former high school and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 people and injuring 14 others. It was the seventh school shooting to result in injury or death in 2018, giving the United States one such shooting for each week of the year thus far. The death toll makes the Parkland shooting one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, if defined as an event where a single gunman kills four or more people selected indiscriminately.
At this point, no one expects anything to change. The Florida tragedy comes four months after a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas, nearly two years after a similar shooting claimed 49 lives in Orlando, Florida, and more than five years after Sandy Hook, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators have already retreated to their usual positions, offering condolences while stressing the futility of gun control, and their opponents have done the same, with liberals mocking those condolences and Democrats demanding action that will not come. The American carnage, to take a phrase from President Trump, will continue.
For all of the killing, though, it’s striking how little Americans have actually seen of the violence. We are shown the aftermath, and sometimes—as with Parkland—we see victims hiding or escaping. But we don’t see what the bullets actually do. We don’t see the crumpled bodies or the bloody hallways, the mutilation that results when a medium-caliber round leaves a high-powered rifle and strikes a living person, tearing flesh, destroying bone, and leaving them either dead or gravely wounded. For the public, mass shootings are bloodless.
That might be part of the problem. Simply hearing about another shooting—seeing the familiar footage on television—has not been enough to turn ordinary Americans into activists or even single-issue voters. Maybe we need to see the results of our choices—of our policies—to prompt a change.
As attorney general, Eric Holder saw the carnage of Sandy Hook firsthand. “If the American people had access to those pictures, if the American people had seen those pictures, the calls for reasonable gun safety measures would have been passed,” Holder said in a 2016 interview. “If members of Congress perhaps had a chance to see those pictures and see what happened to those little angels I think we would’ve seen a different result.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former district attorney, echoed that sentiment. “As a prosecutor … I had to look at autopsy photographs. When you see the effect of this extreme violence on a human body, and especially the body of a child, maybe it will shock some people into understanding this cannot be a political issue. We have to be practical.”
Both Holder and Harris believe in gun control. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. There’s ready precedent for the idea that graphic images can move the public.
The fight to pass a federal anti-lynching law stalled for decades before it was propelled, in part, by gruesome images of Southern lynchings, printed in newspapers and circulated by black activists and sympathetic allies. The horrific violence done to Emmett Till, captured in photos and published for the world to see, helped energize the civil rights movement. There is no firm empirical relationship between press coverage and the public’s turn against the Vietnam War, but images of fighting and death played a real part in pushing some Americans from quiet disagreement to staunch opposition. Images from Abu Ghraib contributed to the wide sense among Americans that U.S. officials were condoning torture in Iraq. And more recently, graphic videos and images from police shootings of black Americans have galvanized a broad protest movement and led to real change in public opinion.
Americans who want new restrictions on guns, gunmakers, and gun merchants are outmatched by the National Rifle Association and its dedicated supporters, who agitate, organize, and vote—rewarding or punishing Republicans based solely on their level of support for the gun industry.
Their success means that the routine, almost ritual, killing of schoolchildren and young adults isn’t enough to budge Republicans from their steadfast opposition to gun control. For some, even the experience of being wounded in a mass shooting is not enough to prompt change or reflection. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was nearly killed after a gunman opened fire on a congressional baseball game, said the experience “fortified” his views on gun control. “First of all, you’ve got to recognize, when there’s a tragedy like this, the first thing we should be thinking about is praying about the people who were injured,” Scalise said. “We shouldn’t first be thinking about promoting our political agenda.”
The only way to beat the NRA is to countermobilize; to turn Americans who want new gun restrictions into a dedicated interest group large enough to threaten the Republican Party and its hold on power. You need a public that demands action and will vote to make it happen. Nearly two decades after the massacre at Columbine, it’s finally time for Americans to really see what our gun culture has wrought. Perhaps then something will change.