Republicans and other conservative politicians have responded to the tragic shooting in Orlando in two ways: one is a platitude, the other is the reason we have such a hard time doing anything about guns in America.
As if programmed by some algorithm, Republicans, and many other public figures, took to Twitter this morning to send their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the shooting. Such platitudes are frustrating, especially when they come from hypocrites who vote against reasonable gun limitations.
As Igor Volsky, Deputy Director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has shown on his masterful Twitter account, almost every Republican politician (and some Democrats) is in the pocket of the National Rifle Association. Senator Tom Cotton, for example, has received more than $2.5 million in NRA expenditures. So it is no wonder that he and all of his Republican colleagues (plus Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)) voted against prohibiting anyone on terror watch lists from buying guns. We cannot know if a law like that would have prevented the horror in Orlando; it would have certainly prevented the shooter from buying the gun he used. But we do know one thing: the harder we make it to access guns, there fewer mass gun deaths there will be.
Their second response is far more troubling, if equally blood-boiling. They do it after every mass shooting. We are told not to politicize the tragedy. Grover Norquist, anti-tax crusader and NRA board member, said it after Sandy Hook. Multiple-also-ran Carly Fiorina said it after San Bernardino. The NRA not only said it after Aurora; the organization also send out a fundraising solicitation!
There are structural, political, and historical reasons why passing gun control legislation is so hard. The list is long: gerrymandering after the 2010 midterm elections that diminished progressive clout and made Republicans more likely to be challenged from the right than the left, lies and misdirection from the right that gun legislation wants to “take away” all guns, money and politics, ghosts of the 1994 midterm elections after Democrats banned assault weapons and then lost Congress, and weakness among our politicians, among so many other factors. It also has a little bit to with law, and the way legal decisions permeate our collective psyche. And, of course, it has to do with how few of us actually vote.
But the common refrain that anyone trying to do something about gun violence is “politicizing” tragedy is, in many ways, the ultimate culprit. It shuts off the debate before it can get started. If we as a nation are not having a conversation about guns, then there is no fight to win or lose. Silence allows the status quo to remain and and gives entrenched right wing politicians permission to pursue their agenda without risk.
Conservatives adopted the same strategy to quash LGBT equality: preempt the debate about gay equality by erasing them from society. And it worked for decades. For years, it was illegal to send anything through the mail that mentioned gays, same-sex relationships, or homosexuality. It was considered “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy.” States also criminalized sodomy, forcing us into hiding. Laws, many of which still exist, that allow employers to fire us simply for being gay also force us into the closet. LGBT non-discrimination ordinances have, since the first local one was introduced in the 1970s, been branded by conservatives as licenses to fill young minds with hedonism, sex, and immorality. Better, they said, that gays did not exist in the public’s mind.
If gays were pushed to the margins, few people would care what happened to them. In the 1950s and 1960s, gays were routinely subjected to police raids, entrapment, physical violence, sexual assault, discrimination in employment and housing. Few, if any, laws prohibited it. Federal, state, and local governments didn’t care when AIDS decimated the gay population. Nor did it matter to most people that anti-sodomy laws transmogrified all gays into presumptive criminals.
Something had to be done. The first step: coming out.
Coming out, or publicly identifying as gay, pushed back against society’s attempt to erase us. The slogan, “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It,” may sound trite to us today–we are, after all, everywhere–but it was a brave, revolutionary step without which future success would not have been possible. As the campaign for the freedom to marry taught us, people were more likely to support marriage equality if they know a gay person and have talked with them. That made our public identification as gay or lesbian essential to securing our rights. It allowed us, from dinner tables in Maine, to PTA meetings in California, to have a conversation about equality. And it made the fight fair.
We need to start a conversation about guns in America. It isn’t happening for many reasons. One reason is because we cower when conservatives accuse us of politicizing tragedy and misstate our positions. Instead, we need to “come out” as proud advocates of limiting access to guns, get involved with advocacy organizations pushing reasonable legislation, and vote out Republicans from office en masse. People need to know: We’re here, we’re dying, and we’re not going to take it anymore.