As it often does after a mass shooting, the Onion posted last week a new version of one of its most enduring stories, “ ‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
Then Monday morning, President Donald Trump came before the cameras and read a speech saturated with precisely what the Onion was satirizing: the ignoramus’ version of American exceptionalism. It treats the United States as not just the greatest country on Earth but in many ways the only country on Earth, such that nothing that happens anywhere else could possibly tell us anything about ourselves or what kind of choices we might make in the future.
Because he was reading a speech others had written for him, Trump managed to say a few reasonable things about the two massacres that occurred over the weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, even if many of them sounded like backhanded denunciations of himself (“In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy”). But when Trump endeavored to explain how such a thing could happen, he offered reasons that anyone from any other country could only laugh at. Here’s where he put the blame: on people with mental health problems, on video games and on the internet.
If those were the things that produced mass shootings, then every country in the world would see mass shootings with the regularity we see them in the United States. Because every country in the world has people with mental health problems, and video games and the internet.
So what is it that makes the United States different from places where mass shootings are rare or nonexistent? Perhaps we should put together a blue-ribbon panel to figure out the answer. Trump knows what it isn’t, however. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said with characteristic eloquence: How is a gun supposed to pull a trigger?
Unless you believe Americans are an inherently murderous people, the reason these mass shootings occur here and almost nowhere else is obvious: It’s the hundreds of millions of guns our country is drowning in.
That isn’t to say that people aren’t radicalized on the internet, or that things like social isolation can’t contribute to a particular individual’s descent toward mass murder. But we’re the country that makes it so easy to acquire the means to act on those impulses.
This is hardly the only policy question on which Republicans seem to think we can’t possibly learn anything from the rest of the world. They act as though providing affordable health insurance to all our citizens is simply beyond the reach of human ingenuity, when in fact every country in Europe does it, as do wealthy Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea. But heaven forbid we actually look at the experience of those countries to see what has succeeded and failed. They couldn’t possibly have anything to teach us.
To be clear, we actually aren’t the country with the highest rate of violent gun deaths in the world. That title belongs to El Salvador, followed by Venezuela, followed by Guatemala and Honduras. But we have a gun homicide rate 25 times as high as similarly developed countries. It varies by country depending on their gun laws, but no wealthy democratic country even comes close to the United States in our quantity of bloodshed from guns.
While I’m not sure about Trump in particular, I can say with confidence that most Republican officeholders who serve up their “thoughts and prayers” after every mass shooting and then pretend to care about mental health and video games for a day or two know exactly how inane and dishonest they’re being. But they don’t see any alternative, because telling the truth would require them to admit that regular mass shootings, not to mention a broader death toll from guns that approaches 40,000 a year, is simply the price they’re willing to pay in order to maintain a status quo in which regulation of guns is so limited as to be little more than a temporary inconvenience to most anyone who wants to arm themselves to the teeth.
They want anybody to be able to get as many guns as they want and carry them wherever they want, and if that means tens of thousands of homicides and suicides with firearms every year, then it’s a price they’re willing to pay. They want anybody to be able to buy weapons of war because they’re fun to shoot and accessorize, and if that means that every month or every week somebody can walk into a mall and mow down 20 people, it’s a price they’re willing to pay.
The laws we have are the laws Republicans and the gun lobby want, and that’s why we have the number of firearm homicides and mass shootings that we do. It isn’t some kind of unfathomable mystery. It’s a choice we’ve made, and continue to make.