Politicizing Tragedy

At the Forum, a heated discussion of the Virginia Tech murders is underway. It took only a matter of hours for gun control advocates to use the shootings as evidence of the need for stricter firearm controls, and for 2nd Amendment advocates to argue that if the school hadn’t been a “gun-free zone,” the killer might have been stopped sooner. (I heard on the radio this morning that just a few weeks ago, the Virginia legislature voted down a proposal to allow college faculty and students to carry firearms, a decision that was hailed by a spokesman for Virginia Tech as maintaining the school’s safe environment.)
At the same time, and equally predictably, others decry the efforts by both sides to “politicize” the shootings by using them as fodder for arguments on either side of the firearms debate. That’s what I really want to comment on.
In general, there is nothing wrong with “politicizing” an issue. This is a democracy, and politics is the process we use to resolve conflicts. Important issues of legitimate public concern should be “politicized.” When a political group says that an issue shouldn’t be “politicized,” it generally means that they are on the losing side of the political argument.
Nor is there anything wrong with using a tragedy to support a political argument; it happens all the time, and should. Do you remember, when the Bush administration was being criticized for its allegedly inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, lots of people in the media saying that the event shouldn’t be politicized? I don’t.
I can understand, too, why some advocates on both sides of the gun issue are in a hurry to make their points: the lesson can be drawn most effectively when the events are fresh; after a few days, public attention will move on to something else.
Still, I do think that the rush to draw gun-control conclusions from the Virginia Tech murders is unfortunate, for two reasons. First, it is unseemly. While this or any other tragedy can be a legitimate topic of political discussion, having that discussion while the bodies are still being carried out of the building conveys an impression of trying to capitalize on the emotion of the moment. Second, we don’t know the facts of this case yet. Thus, when the New York Times leaps into the breach to assert, “What is needed, urgently, is stronger controls over the lethal weapons that cause such wasteful carnage and such unbearable loss,” its conclusion is negated by its own admission that:

Not much is known about the gunman, who killed himself, or about his motives or how he got his weapons, so it is premature to draw too many lessons from this tragedy.

There will be plenty of time next month and next year, after the facts have become clear, to talk about whether and how this event bears on the issue of firearms regulation.
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