COLUMNISTS

Why won't most Republicans even try to fix the gun problem and will voters ever punish them?

In Buffalo we see the tragic intersection of vile 'Great Replacement' rhetoric, a disturbed mind and a zealous gun lobby. But no right is absolute.

Way back when Groupon and Living Social coupons were a thing, an offer for a discounted day at a shooting range crossed my inbox. I had never held a gun, much less owned or shot one, but a friend had just been saying she was interested in trying something like this, so I called her bluff.

This is how the two of us and our husbands ended up at a shooting range near Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. It was a Sunday, two days before our coupon expired on Dec. 14, 2011, and the place was packed with urban and suburban first-timers who had just realized they needed to use their coupon or lose it. The people running things were overwhelmed but trying to give everyone basic safety instructions before we all headed into the dark, concrete gallery and did something dumb or dangerous.

None of this was new for my husband, an Army veteran, or her husband, who had experience firing .22-caliber pistols and rifles. But for me and my friend, it was a revelation – and not a happy one. The noise was piercing, even with ear muffs on. The darkness seemed menacing. The smell was awful. And I kept forgetting to keep the gun pointed down, which seemed to unnerve my husband. (Go figure.)

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We had been treating this outing as a lark, or maybe a school field trip to learn the customs of others, but my friend and I found it deeply disturbing and cut our session short.

One horrific shooting after another

A year to the day after our coupon expired, a 20-year-old gunman would mow down 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On Saturday, an 18-year-old gunman shot 13 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and 10 of them died. Two mass shootings happened even as I wrote this column – at a church lunch honoring a Taiwanese pastor in Laguna Woods, California, and at a flea market in Houston.

Leaving flowers outside the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., where a shooter killed at least one person and injured five on May 15, 2022. Authorities said the shooter, a Chinese immigrant, targeted the church in an "isolated incident" because of frustration over political disagreements between China and Taiwan.

The mood has become increasingly violent and frightening over the past few years, with inflammatory policies, language and attacks targeting immigrants and people of color coming from Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and many others. 

It should be no surprise that hate crimes are at a 12-year high, according to the FBI, or that Attorney General Merrick Garland says the two most lethal motivations for violent domestic extremists are racial and ethnic, "specifically those who advocated for the superiority of the white race.”

Great Replacement Theory? Try language of death wielded by opportunistic right-wing figures

The suspected Buffalo shooter, from what we know so far, is a stereotype of our age. He threatened to shoot up his school last year at age 17, went for a mental health evaluation and then went home. Was there any follow-up? Did his parents know what he was up to? Was anyone paying attention? The assault-style rifle he used was legal, but he modified it illegally and he lied to get it in the first place. What good is New York's red flag law if it couldn't prevent this massacre?

A woman chalks a message on May 15, 2022, at a makeshift memorial outside the Tops Friendly Markets store where a gunman killed 10 people in Buffalo, N.Y.

There are many unknowns, but from what police and other officials have said based on what they know so far, this much is already clear: The Buffalo shooter's motive was racial. Authorities are working to authenticate a racist, anti-immigrant, antisemitic document he allegedly wrote that refers to the "great replacement" conspiracy theory advanced by Carlson – that Democrats are plotting to replace the current electorate with "more obedient voters from the Third World." 

This baseless claptrap is now accepted by 47% of the GOP and promoted by Republican Senate candidates, House members such as Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and the president of the Border Patrol union

We need action:Our well-meaning hashtags won't stop racist mass shootings.

It is tempting to throw up your hands. I almost did in 2017, when I realized I had written at least 17 columns on guns in seven years and nothing had changed. But of course, like the millions of survivors, victims, families and others who care desperately about this scourge, I kept going, kept prodding, kept hoping.

How can you not? Why can’t America fix its gun problem? Why won’t it even try?

Let me amend that: Why won't most Republicans even try? And will voters ever punish them?

Former NAACP president:The Buffalo shooting should make the GOP change its 'Great Replacement Theory' rhetoric

I have never seen a more tragic congressional vote than the Senate's 54-46 defeat of a bipartisan bill tightening gun background checks. It was such a minimal step, tailored by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to have broad appeal, yet it fell a few votes short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster and advance the bill.

That was in April 2013, just four months after the gut-wrenching Sandy Hook rampage.  "Shame on you," Patricia Maisch, who survived a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, shouted from the Senate gallery.

Derail the GOP fixation on guns

It's now nearly 10 years after Sandy Hook, and what has Congress done? The House tries when Democrats are in control, then their bills die in the Senate. And while closing a few holes in the background check system would be helpful, there are more than 400 million guns in America, 98% of them owned by civilians – or 120 guns per 100 citizens. That's nearly twice as many per capita as the Falkland Islands, a tiny British territory that's in second place. 

We need a much larger scale national intervention: limits on how many and what kinds of guns people can own and how and where they can carry them, licenses and training requirements to own guns, voluntary buybacks of as many guns as possible and then, yes, confiscating guns if necessary to enforce new federal laws.

More from Jill Lawrence:

►On gun control, there's nothing and everything left to say

►Would the Founders want our kids to die in school shootings like Santa Fe? I doubt it.

►Guns, abortion and COVID in America: Life, death and differences too stark to bridge

The prerequisites to even the most incremental progress are electing more Democrats and getting rid of the filibuster that enables a 41-senator minority to stop almost any bill in its tracks. President Joe Biden is doing what he can by himself, such as banning "ghost guns." Meanwhile, only seven states require safety training to buy a gun.

Based on my single up-close and personal encounter with a firearm, that's a scary thought. 

In Buffalo, we see the tragic intersection of vile rhetoric from political and media figures, a disturbed mind and gun "rights" advocates irrationally and immorally opposed to any restrictions or safeguards on what they seem to view as their absolute Second Amendment right to bear arms. They need to get over themselves. All rights are regulated, and some rights are much more important than that one – first and foremost, the right to stay alive.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence