It's never the thing. It's always another thing that steers the conversation away from the terrifying jagged edges of modernity toward the comfort of repeating each other's confirmation bias back and forth, such that Solyndra and Benghazi are metonyms that make no sense to most people but are hugely powerful talismans of their increasingly lonely faith.
And by distracting, we avoid talking about the problem in the first place. The crack in the roof never gets fixed, and we become accustomed to mold in the walls.
The latest mass shooting is a great example. The killer's only weapons were two handguns and a rifle. Sure, he had a screw loose. But he also had those guns, just like every other single guy who has committed a mass shooting since Sandy Hook. These things used to happen as often as the Olympics. Now they happen as often as you splurging on Starbucks because you're having one of those days.
A common thread in these mass shootings is the fact that the shooters used guns. But Sen. John Cornyn said that common thread was mental health. “Mental health” has become to politicians what “world peace” is to beauty contestants.
Donald Trump said it was "the mentally ill." Ben Carson said it was "the mentality of the people" (no, I'm not making this up). Mike Huckabee blamed "sin and evil."
And because the shooter apparently was targeting churchgoers, the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee posted on Facebook: "I would encourage my fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to think about getting a handgun carry permit." That’s right. Forget turning the other cheek. Now it’s all about praising the Lord and passing the ammunition.
On Fox, Bill O'Reilly blamed "freedom" and Lou Dobbs blamed a lack of organized prayer in school. And Rush Limbaugh, staying in his lane, blamed Democrats.
Sen. Ted Cruz blamed "gun-free zones," though the college in Roseburg was not a gun-free zone, and "really strict gun control laws," which didn't exist there in Oregon.
Bobby Jindal, who used to be considered a policy whiz but who apparently hasn't had a new idea since the 1990s, blamed video games. He also blamed absentee fathers, because why not heap scorn upon the mourning?
And Sen. Bernie Sanders, hoping to make everyone forget that he voted against the Brady Bill—which required background checks for people purchasing guns—and for banning lawsuits against gun manufacturers, managed to say that guns were to blame, but also “the incredibly high level of gratuitous violence in the media.” Also, mental health.
To be fair, Carson did offer a solution: “The shooter can only shoot one person at a time. He cannot shoot a whole group of people. So the idea is overwhelm him so that not everybody gets killed.”
The Republican Party has come a long way from being basically the Episcopal Church minding its checking accounts. The fact that a mentally ill man shot Ronald Reagan didn’t distract Reagan from seeking, and winning, the Brady Bill. And don’t even bring up the first President George Bush quitting the National Rifle Association because of its anti-government rhetoric. It’s not polite to bring that up nowadays.
Now all Republicans are able to do is to suggest that we hurl ourselves at the terror of a man with a gun, because stopping that man from getting a gun in the first place is literally unimaginable to them. All they can do is repeat comforting words to each other in their increasing isolation. Mass shootings have nothing to do with guns. It’s prayer, video games, violent movies, freedom, Democrats, gun control, gun-free zones and sin.
Also, world peace. I mean, mental health.
Jason Stanford is a partner with the Truman National Security Project. He is also a national Democratic consultant and writes regular columns for The Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report.