Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Stop Begging. Start Fighting.

The only way to get gun reform is to beat anti-reform politicians.
May 25, 2022
Stop Begging. Start Fighting.
People mourn outside of the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. According to reports, 19 students and 2 adults were killed, with the gunman fatally shot by law enforcement. (Composite / Photos: Brandon Bell/GettyImages / Shutterstock)

On Tuesday, after a gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers in a Texas elementary school, Sen. Chris Murphy stood on the Senate floor and implored his colleagues to stop mass shootings.

I’m here on this floor to beg,” said Murphy, pressing his palms together in prayerful supplication. “To literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely.”

“I understand my Republican colleagues will not agree to everything that I may support,” Murphy went on. “But there is a common denominator that we can find.”

It’s easy to see why Murphy has reached the point of begging. A decade ago, he saw the Sandy Hook massacre in his own congressional district. It’s dismaying that so little has been done since then to keep guns out of the hands of killers. And it’s natural to hope that at some point, the carnage will prompt congressional Republicans to accept reasonable restrictions on firearms.

But it’s time to stop begging. Begging hasn’t worked. Nothing will change on this issue until politicians who oppose any reasonable gun restrictions start losing their jobs.

One reason why these pro-gun politicians don’t lose their jobs is that most of the politicians and activists who support gun laws are liberal. Liberals (a) aren’t very good at understanding or tapping into conservative values that are broadly shared across the electorate. And (b) they don’t have the political intelligence, discipline, or will to pummel their opponents for defying those values.

Conservatives have the skill and the will to create and weaponize wedges. They know how to pounce on a fringey idea—“Defund the police”—and punish all of their opponents for it. They understand that most people fear crime. Most people want law and order. And if you can frame your opponent as a threat to police, you’ll win elections.

Guns ought to be understood the same way. The Uvalde shooter reportedly had an AR-15, a handgun, and high-capacity magazines. He had bought two guns the day he turned 18, because at that age it’s legal to buy rifles. And, like the mass shooter two weeks ago in Buffalo, he was able to fend off armed officers, thanks to his gear, which—according to the Texas Department of Public Safety—may have included body armor.

That kind of weaponry isn’t just dangerous. It can match or overpower the police. And that fact ought to change the way we talk about guns. Politicians who stand in the way of reasonable measures—universal background checks, red flag laws, restrictions on high-capacity magazines—are giving criminals and madmen the power to take on officers of the law. These politicians aren’t taking resources away from police—they’re endangering cops and communities by helping to arm killers.

Law enforcement officers understand this. On Tuesday night, Chris Swecker, a former assistant director of the FBI, explained how shooters can assemble a police-level arsenal. “Body armor’s not hard to get a hold of,” Swecker said on CNN. “The type of equipment that we saw in Buffalo and in other shootings [is] not hard to get at any surplus store or any cop shop. They don’t ask you to show your credentials as a police officer to get this type of equipment.”

Swecker expressed dismay at the Uvalde shooter’s weaponry: “The two AKs, unexplainable. An 18-year-old gets two weapons like that on the day that he’s eligible to get them. Too much firepower there. The IACP [International Association of Chiefs of Police] has come out against these assault weapons. And that’s because we as law enforcement officers don’t want to be outgunned.”

That’s the bottom line: Increasingly, police are outgunned.

“I own guns,” said Swecker. “I’m a conservative. But like many law enforcement officers and those that have been in the profession, we don’t like to see” such dangerous weapons “in the hands of people who are not law enforcement.”

If 19 children and two teachers had died in an elementary school after budget cuts to the local police department, House and Senate Republicans wouldn’t be begging for common ground. They’d be in front of every camera and microphone today, pounding Democrats for defunding police.

Instead, these children died after Republicans, in the name of “law-abiding gun owners,” blocked legislation that might have prevented this tragedy and kept this shooter, among others, from outgunning the cops. For that, they should be called what they are: enemies of law and order.

Stop begging them to see the light. Bring the heat.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.