Why politicians stick to their guns when it comes to mass shootings

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah jokingly compared Republican politicians’ pro-life stance on abortion with their blasé attitude toward the increasing number of American deaths caused by gun violence: “They just need to have a superhero’s dedication to life. Because right now, they’re more like comic book collectors: Human life only matters until you take it out of the package, and then there’s nothing left.”

Here, Noah actually raised a valid point about why conservative opposition to gun control is so hypocritical. At a time when being pro-life is associated with opposing a woman’s right to control her own body, why is it so hard to convince many of those same people that the lives of gun victims matter just as much?

We can start with the most prominent recent shooting—namely, the killing spree at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that left nine dead and more than 20 injured. The fatalities included:

  • Lucero Alcaraz, a 19-year-old aspiring pediatric nurse

  • Treven Taylor Anspach, a 20-year-old athlete who was described as being “part of the fire and EMS family”

  • Rebecka Ann Carnes, an 18-year-old studying to become a dental assistant

  • Quinn Glen Cooper, an 18-year-old who loved martial arts and was shot during his fourth day of college

  • Kim Dietz, a 59-year-old who worked with her husband at a local vineyard and whose daughter attended the college

  • Lucas Eibel, an 18-year-old who was studying chemistry

  • Jason Dale Johnson, a 34-year-old whose family described him as “proud to be a Christian”

  • Lawrence Levine, a 67-year-old assistant professor of English who was teaching in the classroom that was attacked

  • Sarena Dawn Moore, a 44-year-old business student

Aside from the Oregon shooting, there have been other gun-related incidents this week that deserve attention. Take McKayla Dyer, an 8-year-old girl in Tennessee who was shot to death by an 11-year-old bully when she refused to let him pet her dog. Her neighbor, Chastity Arwood, when interviewed later, noted that “guns should be under lock and key if you have a child, nowhere in arms reach of a child.” There is also Jordan Schott, who was shot by an unidentified suspect on the campus of Texas Southern University, and Ethan Schmidt, a professor at Delta State University who was the victim of a shooting that occurred there less than four weeks ago.

Why are the same presidential candidates who have largely backed the defunding of Planned Parenthood willing to dismiss shootings by saying “Stuff happens,” like Jeb Bush? 

This is just a short list, of course. So far, the year 2015 has brought about 45 shootings on school grounds, 17 of which were on college campuses. Even more sobering, there have been 294 mass shootings this year, causing 380 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries. If you broaden this to include gun-related deaths, the number is 9,959 so far in 2015. As Linda Qiu of the Washington Post put it, “That’s a grand total of 301,797 firearm-related deaths in the past decade, compared to 71 deaths from domestic acts of terrorism.”

The question here, then, is why are the lives of the unborn weighed so much more heavily than the lives of shooting victims? Why are the same presidential candidates who have largely backed the defunding of Planned Parenthood willing to dismiss shootings by saying “Stuff happens,” like Jeb Bush? Ben Carson went even further: During a Facebook Q&A conducted on Monday, the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon claimed that he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

In American politics, the need to be consistent about valuing “life” matters less than the need to balance various ideological priorities within one’s own partisan organization. 

I suspect there is a twofold answer here. The first can be found in our political culture: For better or worse, abortion has been a hot-button political issue in America since Roe v. Wade declared that women had a constitutional right to make decisions about their own bodies back in 1973. Thanks to the disproportionate influence of the religious right in the Republican Party, any GOP presidential candidate who wishes to be nominated in the years since needs to take an outspoken stance against abortion in order to be considered politically viable.

At the same time, the equally disproportionate influence of pro-gun organizations like the NRA guarantees that any politician seeking the Republican nomination needs to avoid being perceived as too friendly with gun control advocates who want to strengthen regulations. While none of this is intended to pick on the Republican Party specifically (after all, Democrats are just as beholden to special interest groups), it does illustrate the formula that makes such hypocrisy possible: In American politics, the need to be consistent about valuing “life” matters less than the need to balance various ideological priorities within one’s own partisan organization.

The other problem, though, is that not enough attention is paid to the lives and stories of the victims lost during shooting tragedies. Occasionally there will be a viral campaign to honor a particularly conspicuous act of heroism (see: the $700,000 raised online to help pay for the medical bills of Chris Mintz, an Iraq war veteran who risked his life saving others during the Umpqua Community College shooting), but in general, the focus is placed on analyzing the shooter and picking apart their motives. Because the question of gun control is rightly brought up whenever these shootings occur (which is far too often), there is an understandably political tone to the debate surrounding these events.

That said, the debate can obscure the underlying human tragedy, making it easy to dismiss the lives lost as statistics or—if you oppose gun regulation—as even a nuisance, one to be shuffled away as part of the natural tragedy of human existence rather than as lives as worthy of protection as any other.

This poses something of a challenge to anyone who wants to explain to the anti-gun control crowd why this issue matters so much. Until you develop a visceral empathy for the victims of these shootings—whether they’re the nine fatalities at an Oregon community college or an 8-year-old girl in Tennessee being victimized by a local bully—it’s hard to appreciate why this issue is so frustrating for comedians like Trevor Noah or infuriating to activists on the ground.

If you truly believe that these lives matter, then you should want the government to do everything it can to protect people who are dying in fully preventable ways—and that has to include after they’re born.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph. D. student in American history at Lehigh University who specializes in national politics. As a political columnist, his editorials have been published on Salon and MSNBC.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.