Don’t Let a School Shooting Become a Story About the Police

Guns are the issue. A lot of the political establishment wants you to forget that.

Hamilton Nolan

(Photo by Wu Xiaoling/Xinhua via Getty Images)

It’s been a week since teenager Salvador Ramos massacred 21 people with an assault rifle at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. That is enough time for the initial wave of thoughts and prayers to dissipate, and for the knee-jerk pleas against politicizing” a tragedy to subside. It is time to take a hard look at what, if anything, will come from this mass shooting — whether the latest batch of dead bodies will prompt any actual political movement in the direction of gun control. 

The answer is that the contours of a political response to this massacre are emerging, and they should give you a sinking feeling deep in your gut. Because there’s every reason to think that the political establishment of both parties, along with the pundits who create what becomes conventional wisdom, will settle on one thing as their response of choice: Cops. More cops. Better training for cops. More equipment for cops. More money for cops. Cops, as a solution for the ills created by guns. That, I’m afraid, is where this is headed. 

You may notice that We will provide better training for cops so that they can take down the next mass shooter faster” is not a solution that addresses the underlying problem — that America has more guns than humans. As a strictly political matter, though (which is how every tragedy is eventually viewed in Congress), cops are an alluring answer to an intractable problem. Gun control is something that enjoys broad public support, but is perceived as a non-starter by Democrats in Congress, because Republicans are unanimously against it and because there are still extremely influential elements of the Democratic Party power structure that would rather endure periodic mass shootings than the end of the filibuster. 

Those same elements have spent the past two years loudly proclaiming that they despise the idea of defunding the police,” even though their own party has never made any effort to defund the police. This is the power of conventional wisdom at work: the unshakeable 30-year conviction that Democrats must look tough in order to win elections manifests itself today as the belief that there is nothing but political upside for turning to the police as a solution to every complex social problem. 

Many Democrats, in fact, are greater allies of police than Republicans. The support for cops on the Right is a straightforward, thuggish, Biblical eye-for-an-eye philosophy that violence is the answer to evil. But among Democratic leaders, the inevitable rush to ostentatiously embrace police is pure overcompensation, born from a fear of being perceived as weak. Rather than having the courage of compassion and nuance, the mainstream Democratic position on public safety” is that of a sensitive child who was once bullied and who then becomes the loudest macho bully himself, in a desperate bid to shield himself from ever being mocked again. 

So while more and better equipped and more intensely trained police do not solve the problem that America has with guns, they do solve two very painful problems for Democrats: The problem of their unwillingness to do what it would take to enact gun control (an unwillingness that means they cannot offer the public a truly meaningful solution to this massacre), and the problem of their own pathetic concern over fear mongering from Republicans during election season. Cops are not what the children of Robb Elementary school needed. Cops are not what the rest of America needs. But cops are what Democrats in Congress need in order to not look ineffectual and cowardly. So more cops, I fear, are what we will get. 

Watching the narrative around Uvalde be derailed away from the horror of the shooting itself and towards the flaws with the police department’s reaction to the shooting has been a depressing experience. Not because it is unfair to criticize the failure of the cops to rush in immediately and rescue the children from the shooter, but because the ability to talk about tactical policing rather than about gun control is exactly what people who do not want any gun control want. 

If the real issue in Uvalde was a bad police response, well, politicians are ready and willing to trip over themselves by sending more money and guns to the police, and by staring into cameras with a manly, flinty look and declaring how nobody better mess with school kids any more, or else. These things come easily. If the real issue in Uvalde, however, is the insane proliferation of guns in America, and the fact that an 18-year-old could legally purchase an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammo, well… offering a legislative response to that would involve ending the filibuster and would also necessitate Democratic members of Congress opening themselves up to attack ads from deranged Republican candidates holding shotguns and calling them pussies, and that is simply not something that Democrats are willing to risk. But hey, they will settle on more police. Who can complain? It’s a bipartisan solution. 

This dynamic is why Barack Obama could not enact meaningful gun control during eight years in the White House, through countless mass shootings, and yet Obama adviser David Axelrod’s considered reaction to the Uvalde incident was to say, incoherently, that The inexplicable, heart-wrenching delay in Uvalde underscores the indispensable role of police.” It doesn’t matter that all the police in the world have not yet managed to do anything to stop our mass shootings, just like it didn’t matter to every Democrat who blamed the slogan defund the police” for their political losses that no Democrats actually defunded the police. What matters in these cases is the ability to pantomime, in a believable way, the illusion of doing something. When it comes right down to it, most politicians of both parties would much rather pretend that they have helped prevent the next school shooting by taking a futile (or counterproductive) action than actually tell voters the awful truth about much of our broken system of governance — that it must be rebuilt if we are ever going to stop this ongoing, murderous nightmare. 

All this is to say that everyone needs to keep their eyes on the prize. Real gun control must happen, real gun sales must be restricted, real numbers of existing guns must be reclaimed and permanently destroyed. We all love to point to the failures of police. But there is a point at which that bleeds over into a narrative-shifting trap, and we are at that point. Do not let this sickening crime be transformed into a story about whether or not police can stop these things. Get the guns. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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