As I sat on a television set in New York and watched President Trump’s speech, the central question on my mind was: Are we at a turning point?
Have the twin massacres in El Paso and Dayton shocked the country to the point where the political establishment will be forced to take action?
Was the horrifying spectacle of a deranged man who hates Hispanics and immigrants, opening fire in a Wal-Mart, enough to change the national debate?
Or will this soon recede, as happened after Parkland High School, after Las Vegas, after the Orlando nightclub, after Sandy Hook Elementary, with Washington’s gridlock intact?
In his speech, the president condemned not just racism and bigotry but white supremacists. This was in part a response to a barrage of criticism, especially from the 2020 Democrats, that Trump himself is a white supremacist or at least encourages the evil ideology.
But it may also have been a response to the ugly manifesto that we now know was posted by the El Paso gunman, railing against a Hispanic invasion and immigrants taking over Texas.
I’ve already said (and taken heat for saying) that it’s unfair to blame Trump for condoning or encouraging violence by the “twisted monsters” (in the president’s phrase) who practice the evil ideology of white supremacy. It’s perfectly fair to criticize Trump for divisive rhetoric and racially charged rhetoric (the “go back” tweets aimed at the minority congresswomen) that polls show a majority of the public disapproving. But there’s a stark difference between that debate and linking Trump to a mass murderer. And for the record, I took the same position when some on the right said Barack Obama had “blood on his hands” after law-enforcement officers were killed. And after a crazed gunman who admired Bernie Sanders seriously Steve Scalise and other Republicans at a baseball practice. And after some on the left blamed Sarah Palin for an insane shooter who wounded Gabby Giffords and killed others.
I was glad Trump spoke of getting tough with social media sites where violence-prone people spread their radicalization. A web firm has already shut down 8chan, a shadowy site where the El Paso gunman and other mass murderers have congregated.
But what was missing from Trump’s speech was what he tweeted hours earlier, a call for stricter background checks for gun purchases. He set up expectations that he would tackle the issue, but wound up just calling for bipartisan solutions (as well as actions in such areas as mental illness and violent video games).
The media climate, in my view, is changing. Two newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls Fox News, yesterday urged a ban on assault weapons, similar to the one allowed to expire in 2004, a decade after it was passed by the Clinton administration.
The New York Post urged Trump to act, calling him “a pragmatic centrist, someone who knows there is a vast majority of Americans who are not to the extreme left or right on this issue. They just want the killings to stop.”
The Wall Street Journal had a similar editorial titled “The Killers in Our Midst.”
National Review, while warning against a “myopic focus on guns,” said Trump “should instruct the federal government to initiate an information campaign against white-supremacist violence in much the same way as it has conducted crusades against drunk driving, human trafficking, and domestic violence.”
For all the media focus on Trump’s rhetoric, he is uniquely prepared to lead on this issue. While he ran as a Second Amendment champion, he took on the NRA at a series of televised meetings with members of Congress early last year. The president called for both tighter background checks and raising the age limit for gun purchases for 21, and told GOP Sen. Patrick Toomey that he was “afraid of the NRA.”
Trump said he was willing to take the heat, but quietly dropped his proposals after meeting with NRA leaders. He did, however, push his administration to essentially ban bump stocks.
Background checks and even an assault weapons ban are no panacea. But if Trump could forge some kind of bipartisan consensus on this treacherous issue, he will have accomplished something that Obama and Joe Biden, for all their focus on gun control, could not.
The only way that will happen, though, is if we are truly at an inflection point in terms of public revulsion with mass shootings.