The outpouring of grief that follows any mass shooting, like the horrific and senseless, cruelly and uniquely American massacre in Las Vegas early this morning, which left 59 dead and hundreds wounded, often comes in the forms of “thoughts and prayers.” This is natural, of course, particularly for those who consider themselves religious. It is also well-intentioned, genuine and empathetic.
And yet, the harsh reality is that, when it comes to these horrifying tragedies, we are in a self-defeating, perpetual cycle of shoot, pray and repeat. There is no change in that cycle. There is no progress. There is no action. Each time something like this happens, there are calls on congress to pass meaningful gun legislation; each time, Republicans (and some Democrats) abdicate their responsibility to the American people. Their response amounts to a helpless, resigned sort of shrug, which is a euphemistic way of saying that they’ve accepted violence as a byproduct of maintaining one’s Second Amendment right to semi-automatic weapons that make it possible for a 64-year-old to kill and injure scores of innocent citizens in a matter of minutes—with ease. Their quote-unquote “prayers” are numbingly rote at this point, not because I think they are unsympathetic, but because their thoughts are not followed by action.
Which is precisely the problem: mass shootings are not a religious issue. We should not be engaging with it on exclusively religious terms. Because whether someone has easy access to a semi-automatic weapon and uses it to kill someone else is not a matter of faith, it is a matter of law. The conservative response is a personal, religious reaction; it is not a legislative solution to what is, at its core, a constitutional problem.
Do not be persuaded, then, by the critics denouncing those who would dare “politicize” a mass shooting by calling for reasonable gun control legislation. It is not possible, first of all, to politicize that which is already innately political. And in flooding the discourse with religious rhetoric—by framing the response as the sanctimoniously religious versus the cravenly political—they exempt themselves from having to offer up any meaningful alternative. This is political, too, more insidiously so: their grief, while not necessarily disingenuous, is nonetheless a cover for an inexcusable inertia.
People have every right to send prayers to the families of those affected by mass shootings. And they should. But in so doing we must also recognize that we are adopting the language of a political body who is hell-bent on doing everything in its power to depoliticize one of the most injurious sets of policies in the history of our country. It goes without saying that we should empathize with those who have lost loved ones in a tragedy. But if we’re going to make any substantive change, we’ll need our lawmakers to do more than just pray.