What Would It Take?

The shooting that occurred at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice yesterday in Alexandria, VA, left the capital and the nation reeling, and prompted numerous questions. Who could do something this malicious? Why were members of Congress — specifically, Republicans — targeted? What role, if any, did our increasingly heated political rhetoric play in the madness?

However, as is often the case, most are loathe to talk about the one issue that is a constant in each of these episodes: guns. Even former President Obama, who made gun-safety reform one of the centerpieces of his presidency and often broached the topic following mass shootings, made no mention of gun policy when reaching out to Republicans to offer his condolences yesterday. And to many people, this is a reasonable reaction: why bring up a divisive issue while people are still grieving?

But events like this have become so common in America that it seems imprudent not to ask subsequent questions about our gun laws and culture. Some may charge that doing so is exploiting a tragedy for political gain, but as Obama said after a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon, this is necessarily a political issue. The only way we are going to solve an epidemic like gun violence is through political mechanisms and decisions.

In fact, Democrats have been trying to address this crisis for years by pushing for common-sense gun-safety laws. However, their main obstacle to any kind of meaningful change has consistently been the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party, which are political entities. With each passing incident, gun-reform groups have asked, What would it take? What would it take for members of either of these groups to finally come on board?

It didn’t happen after then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 and Democrats tried to introduce legislation aimed at banning high-capacity magazines. It didn’t happen after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, after which Democrats tried to enact universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons (both of which were incredibly popular) but were instead told we simply needed more good guys with guns. It didn’t happen after the Pulse Nightclub shooting — the deadliest in U.S. history — in which the shooter had previously been on the terrorist watch list and Democrats tried changing the law to prevent individuals on that list from purchasing firearms.

But with the incident this week in Alexandria, in which Republicans themselves were targeted by a man with a long-range rifle, one might hope that they would finally warm to the possibility of agreeing to some restrictions on access to guns. Maybe such a personal incident is what it finally takes. And really, can we not all at least agree that such weapons of war don’t belong on the streets of America? As one of the members in attendance said, the scene reminded him of his tour in Iraq:

But, within hours of the shooting, another member of the team — Congressman Mo Brooks — said that it had no impact on his views about guns.

“ The Second Amendment right to bear arms is to ensure that we always have a republic. And as with any constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights, there are adverse aspects to each of those rights that we enjoy as people. And what we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly.”

In fact, Republicans broadly are saying they think the best solution is less gun control, not more.

Let’s deconstruct this argument in our current setting. First, Virginia has lax gun laws:

  • You are allowed to carry both long guns and handguns

So, if they had wanted, the members in attendance could have had guns with them on site. Why didn’t they? Perhaps because it would be infeasible to have a gun on your person while playing a game of baseball, or perhaps because they were playing on a ball field in suburban America and should not have expected to need one. Either way, no laws actually prevented them from having a firearm at the park.

However, there were two armed Capitol Police officers in attendance, as Congressman Steve Scalise, one of the five who were shot, is a member of the Republican leadership team. The two officers engaged in a firefight with the shooter until he was ultimately killed. As Senator Rand Paul said, had it not been for the armed police, “it would’ve been a massacre.”

Paul is likely right — the presence of armed officers surely saved the lives of many, if not all, of the members in attendance. But various accounts of the shooting suggest the shooter still managed to fire off at least 50 shots. How? One reason could be that the officers were relying on handguns to combat a man using a military-style assault rifle. Another is that he had the element of surprise — no one could or should have anticipated an event like this; even if the members had had guns at the field, he could have caused serious damage before anyone was able to access them. Either way, despite the officers’ presence, the outcome could have been far worse.

So this begs several questions: if a group of people protected by some of the best-trained police officers in the country could still be ambushed and their lives still put in jeopardy, what does that mean for the rest of us? Should we all be expected to carry an assault rifle around in our daily lives to ward off potential attackers? Is there no longer any place in our homeland where we can roam free, without fear of sudden violence? Is this any way to live? Would it not simply be easier to try to prevent people like the shooter from acquiring these weapons in the first place?

And all of this prompts a return to the original question: What would it take? Republican politicians seem unmoved to take preemptive action against people who clearly should not have access to firearms. So are we all resigned to a future of routine bloodshed? Is the answer really to return to a Wild West-style gun culture? As Shannon Watts, who leads Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, poignantly stated, “ if more guns and fewer laws was the best solution, we would be the safest country in the world.”

We’re the only developed nation in the world where these scenes have become commonplace, and we simply cannot go on living this way. Partisan politics aside, we need Republican members of Congress to join gun-safety advocates in taking a stand and pushing for some kind of reform to simply allow us feel safe in our own communities again. But, if a tragedy like this does nothing move the needle, I fear we have to come to accept this as our new normal.

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Michael Baharaeen

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.