“Enough,” says Hillary Clinton. After the Senate defeated several gun-control proposals, she tweeted that word along with the names of the victims of the Orlando massacre.
Political activists use tragedy and loss all the time to draw attention to good causes, or causes they think are good. There’s nothing wrong with that. What makes Clinton’s invocation of these names grotesque is that the gun-control measures she is using them to tout would not have prevented their murders.
Democrats want to block anyone the U.S. attorney general suspects is a terrorist from being able to legally purchase a gun. Republicans think that to buy a gun, someone on the terrorist watch list should have to wait for 72 hours, during which law enforcement could get a judge to block the purchase by showing probable cause that he is involved in terrorist plotting. The Republicans blocked the Democratic proposal because they thought it went too far, and the Democrats blocked the Republican proposal because they thought it didn’t go far enough.
The Republican proposal seems to me both more respectful of civil liberties and more responsive to what we know about the watch list’s errors. Senators Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren, who are maintaining that Republicans “have decided to sell weapons to ISIS,” are being demagogues. (Have Murphy and Warren “decided to let ISIS fighters live among us” because they are not for jailing or deporting anyone on the list?)
But leave that argument aside. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic proposal would have stopped the Orlando killer, because he wasn’t on the watch list. Neither were the killers in San Bernardino.
The Senate also voted down measures to expand background checks -- again, both a Democratic proposal and a more limited Republican one. There are reasonable arguments on both sides. Neither proposal would have saved one life in Orlando or San Bernardino, because the killers passed background checks.
On ABC over the weekend, Senator Murphy said that it doesn’t matter whether the gun-control proposals he is pushing would have prevented the massacre. “[T]his has to be broader than just responding to the tragedy that happened three days ago.” He is of course correct that a proposal can offer benefits greater than its costs, and therefore be worth enacting, even if it would not have saved the lives of the people on Clinton’s list. The fact that stronger background checks would not have saved their lives is thus not an argument against having them.
It is, however, an argument against using their deaths as a moral bludgeon against the critics of that proposal. It’s a tactic that supporters of gun control use regularly. It’s one that can’t withstand five seconds of thought -- but then the point of it is to disarm thought: to make it seem as though criticism of a flawed proposal amounts to disrespect for the slain. What Clinton is engaged in is crass exploitation of the murdered.