When it’s okay to talk politics after a mass shooting

As America grapples with the increasing frequency and deadliness of mass shootings, politicians are turning to scripted reactions to respond to the tragedies. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

After any high-profile mass shooting, there are a number of expected responses: grief, frustration, calls for peace and, invariably, the suggestion that discussing the politics of gun ownership shortly afterward is gauche and insensitive.

That demand — that the country does not discuss measures to limit the access of guns in the immediate aftermath of a massacre — is often itself motivated by politics.

Take the two mass killings last October. On the first day of the month, Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and wounded hundreds more during a music festival in Las Vegas. Visiting the city shortly afterward, President Trump insisted that he wouldn’t talk about gun control policies. His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had already declared that “there’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.”

When a terrorist drove his car down a jogging path in Manhattan on Oct. 31, though, Trump politicized the incident immediately. The difference, of course, is that Trump wants policy changes that he argues will combat terrorism and opposes most measures to restrict gun ownership. (His response to the shooting at a high school in Florida on Wednesday focused on the shooter’s mental state.)

The insistence that the aftermath of shooting incidents is not the time to discuss gun politics means, quite simply, that there’s hardly ever an appropriate time to discuss gun politics. Just as Trump sought to leverage the emotional aftermath of the attack in Manhattan for his policies, others want to use the emotion and frustration of mass shootings to advocate for their own. The request for a cooling-off period does just that: cools concerns about mass killings.

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We tried to figure out when, exactly, it’s been acceptable to discuss gun politics after mass shootings. Using a database of incidents compiled by the pro-gun-control Gun Violence Archive, we created this interactive that lets you determine what counts as a mass shooting and how long after one of those events we should wait before tackling the political issues underlying gun ownership.

The problem, of course, is that incidents in which multiple people are shot are stunningly common in the United States. There have been more than 1,000 incidents since Trump declared his candidacy in which four or more people were killed or wounded, and 40 incidents in which five or more people were killed. If you wait a week after each of those mass killings, more than a quarter of the time since June 2015, discussion of shooting incidents has been verboten.

Hopefully, this interactive doesn’t count as a too-soon discussion of gun politics. If it is, simply return in a week (or 30 days or whatever) and consider it then.


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