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Analysis: The gun debate lets government off the hook after every mass shooting

Police tape cordons off the crime scene at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs after the worst mass shooting in Texas history on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. (Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune)

by Ross Ramsey | The Texas Tribune

It has to be frustrating to high public officials to witness recurrent and urgent public health crises and have little more than condolence to offer the victims. Over and again, they scramble to crime scenes where deranged people with guns have proven far too nimble for the law enforcement and mental health systems.

It’s a problem government hasn’t been able to solve.

“I wish some law would fix all this,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Fox News this week, after 26 people were killed in a church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday morning. “The reality is, if somebody is willing to kill someone, changing gun laws probably doesn't affect that person. What you have to do is you have to allow citizens to protect themselves.”

You heard him. You’re on your own out there, folks. Good luck to you.

Given their intractable positions over gun laws, government officials are as powerless in the face of mass shootings as they are in the aftermaths of tornados and hurricanes and other disasters — the vast array of unstoppable forces insurance companies refer to as Acts of God. Unable to prevent those events, they can only react in horror and sorrow.

Mass shootings are even less predictable than the weather. But through the National Weather Service and other outfits, the government has harnessed enough observational science to predict when and where storms are likely to hit. Even when they’re wrong about the specifics, they still often save lives. They can’t stop the weather, but they have worked hard to limit the casualties and the damage it can cause.

Mass shootings are more like the storms of 100 years ago — unpredictable, surprising, deadly and heartbreaking. Like the storms, they fade away quickly, leaving death and destruction and fear of the next one.

But the government isn’t yet in a position to do anything about it, given the political stalemate over gun laws. Consider this for a moment without judging it, without cranking up the familiar arguments about guns: That debate doesn’t matter as much as the problem of the shootings themselves. If these events were storms, we’d be trying to predict them — to limit the effects and risks of events we cannot figure out a way to stop.

In the latest instance, one government agency — the U.S. Air Force — failed to tell other government agencies what they needed to know to keep the shooter from buying the guns he took to the First Baptist Church on Sunday morning. This case was on the radar and nobody noticed; perhaps it could have been prevented if they had done their jobs.

Instead, we’re right where we usually are: Police agencies are left with the cleanup and the duty of explaining, as best they can, what happened. Maybe they’ll find something there that will help them put together a forecasting system like the one we have constructed around weather. A 15-minute warning would be everything in a shooting, just as it is when a tornado whirls in.

The regular arguments about weapons mask the uselessness of government officials who descend on these scenes with thoughts and prayers and sympathy. Emergency crews do their grim and vital work, saving lives that would otherwise be lost. Investigators sort out the details in a process that almost always — if slowly — makes law enforcement people smarter and improves their ability to stop some of the shooters still in our future.

Policymakers, however, are stumped. The gun stalemate is tiresome to all sides and seems safely quarantined from meaningful discussion or debate. Mental illness is clearly part of this, but it’s an expensive part of this — difficult to address without serious and prolonged financial commitment.

Elected officials can do little more than what they do now. Show up. Offer solace and empathy. Promise investigative resources. Speak for the emergency crews and medical teams and law enforcement officers and investigators who are saving people and cleaning up and piecing together the latest volume in our growing history of terrible mass violence.

And then go home and wait for the next one — frustrated that they haven’t been able to find a way to contain or control the stupefying plague of mass murder in America.

Maybe we should think and pray about that.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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