When news broke on October 13 that five individuals had been killed in their northeast Raleigh neighborhood by a teenaged gunman, I’m sure we all shared feelings of shock, horror, and concern for the victims’ families, friends, and neighbors. Shortly afterwards, many turned their thoughts from the tragedy itself to its potential implications for politics and public policy — an understandable reaction, yes, but also one fraught with peril.
What responsible people did next was to keep those thoughts to themselves until they knew more about the details of the Raleigh shooting. Alas, Joe Biden wasn’t one of those people.
In an official White House statement, the president expressed his grief and sympathy, then quickly pivoted to politics. “We must pass an assault weapons ban,” he insisted. “The American people support this commonsense action to get weapons of war off our streets. House Democrats have already passed it. The Senate should do the same. Send it to my desk and I’ll sign it.”
By “assault weapons,” Biden wasn’t referring to machine guns, which are for the most part already illegal for private citizens to own. He was talking about standard-issue semiautomatic rifles that fire one round per trigger pull. There are tens of millions of these rifles in the United States. They account for a tiny percentage of deaths by firearm. Even if it were politically possible to ban the sale of new ones, it would be practically impossible to confiscate all the rifles already in existence. And doing so would still have only a miniscule effect on homicides and assaults, the vast majority of which are committed with handguns or other weapons.
Most importantly, such a ban would have had absolutely no effect on the Raleigh shootings. The teenager in question used a shotgun. He also carried a handgun and hunting knife.
If the president had resisted his immediate urge to politicize the tragedy, he’d have avoided jamming another foot in his already overstuffed mouth. If he’d waited for the release of the police report, perhaps he wouldn’t have applied his stock answer to what proved to be the wrong question. Such stock answers don’t work anyway. Studies recently published in Social Science Quarterly and the British Journal of Political Science show that when politicians talk up gun control after well-publicized shootings, they only reinforce preexisting public views (for or against).
Biden is hardly the only politician who demeans and coarsens our public discourse by speaking out loud what ought to be kept in one’s head. Donald Trump does it virtually every day. Even North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper — who during much of his political career was known for and served well by a judicious use of words — has taken to uttering sweeping generalizations and insults.
In his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, for example, Cooper told a reporter last week that “the majority of the Republican Party has decided that they are OK with an autocracy as long as their guy is in charge.”
Criticizing Trump and his henchmen for their false and reckless claims about the 2020 election is entirely appropriate. But Cooper’s claim that most Republicans support autocracy is also false and reckless, as well as in obvious tension with the recent behavior of Democratic officeholders, including the governor himself.
Keep in mind that President Biden believes he has the unilateral power to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars in student-loan debt to federal taxpayers. Cooper believed he had the unilateral power during the COVID-19 pandemic to decide which businesses would be allowed to operate. Both cited vague passages of laws that were clearly never intended to grant a single individual such powers. Neither should be lecturing the rest of us about autocracy.
Reserve is to civilized society what oil is to an engine: indispensable. Without its lubrication, there is friction, heat, and, eventually, catastrophic failure. Most of our stray thoughts and feelings merit neither vocalizing nor analyzing. That goes double for politicians.