In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, major news outlets have fawned over the student-led movement pressing legislators for gun control. The success of this movement, however, lies not in the eloquence of their policy prescriptions but rather in the weaponizing of public sympathy.
A recent event that highlighted this troubling development was the town hall hosted by CNN last Wednesday. The public discussion was attended by the students and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida politicians like Marco Rubio, Dana Loesch of the National Rifle Association, and many others. But it would be generous to call the event a conversation.
It was clear from the start of the night that the enemy of everyone in attendance was the NRA. Emotions ran high, and as a result most of the anger and vitriol was directed toward the present representative of the NRA, Dana Loesch.
Notably, Emma González, a survivor of the shooting and organizer of the “March For Our Lives”, insinuated that Loesch did not care for her own children. She opened her question asserting “we will support your two children in the way that you will not.” This sentiment was later echoed in an interview with fellow student and organizer David Hogg, who claimed that Loesch “doesn’t care about these children’s lives” because she “owns these congressmen” but does not push for gun control.
Perhaps the most shocking comment of the night, however, was directed at Senator Marco Rubio in a question from the most outspoken student, Cameron Kasky. When asking Senator Rubio if he would refuse donations from the NRA, Kasky prefaced his question with a puzzling declaration, “Senator Rubio, it’s hard to look at you and not look down the barrel of an AR-15 and not look at Nicholas Cruz, but the point is…”
Mind you, this is the same student who informed politicians (and by extension their constituents) that “You are either with us or against us” in an interview with other organizers of the “March For Our Lives” shortly after the tragic shooting. In the same speech, he claimed that students were “losing our lives while the adults are playing around” and that, while they appreciate the older generations’ contributions, “we don’t need you.”
All these comments are reflective of the problem with regarding passion and experience as indicative of correctness.
Experiencing a tragedy certainly places one in a unique and privileged position to advocate for change, but it becomes dangerous when we conflate personal experience with knowledge. Undoubtedly, nobody should ever have to experience the terror of seeing their friends killed by a gunman, especially at such a young age. However, experiencing such a tragedy does not suddenly imbue anyone with vast and unquestionable knowledge of a contentious public policy issue.
Cameron Kasky and his fellow organizers are certain that the NRA is secretly working behind the scenes to pad the wallets of the gun lobby with total disregard for human life. To believe this is to be woefully ignorant of how the NRA and public policy in general work in the United States. Whatever their motives, politicians have their own agenda, and most of the money given by interest groups (including the NRA) is spent on finding and supporting the campaigns of politicians who align with their cause.
As Marco Rubio aptly explained to Kasky, “I will do what I think is right. And if people want to support my agenda, they’re welcome to do so. But they buy into my ideas. I don’t buy into theirs.” One could quarrel with the idea that politicians make decisions purely based on what they think is right, but the core of the argument remains. For the majority of issues, people buy into the ideas of elected leaders and not the other way around.
This is especially true of large and salient public policy debates such as the one that surrounds gun control. Dana Loesch does not own congressmen as David Hogg suggests, and any money contributed to Rubio’s success is reliant on the fact that he and the NRA share similar policy positions. To suggest that the NRA buys politicians reveals an utter lack of understanding of how lobbying in Washington works, particularly with single-issue lobbies where membership is often comprised of vast numbers of ordinary, concerned American citizens. As Rubio rightly reminded the crowd, “There is money on both sides of every issue in America. And where that leaves us in policymaking, is to look at the issues and make a decision based on what we think is right.”
Disappointingly, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch deployed the same detrimental emotional argument just a day after the CNN town hall at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Taking a shot at the media, she exclaimed “Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it,” Shortly thereafter, she was rightly lambasted by the media and, in an interview with Alisyn Camerota on CNN, plainly told “How dare you.”
And therein lies the problem. When Dana Loesch uses false, divisive, and unconstructive language, we correctly criticize her, but we refrain from doing the same to the children organizing the “March For Our Lives.”
Should we have empathy for the students who had to experience that tragedy of a mass shooting? Of course. Still, this does not mean that we should condone suggestions that Dana Loesch does not care if children are killed or that Marco Rubio represents the vile monster who gunned down seventeen innocent people. To attack someone for their beliefs in this manner is both logically incoherent and morally abhorrent. It is exceedingly rare to find a person who is genuinely unfeeling toward the loss of human life, so why do we allow emotional clout to excuse attacking the motivations and character of people while ignoring their arguments?
Experience should never be wielded as a club to beat our opposition into submission; in the case of gun control, it does a disservice to those who have died by further dividing people in an already polarized debate.
The truth of an argument is not dependent on the actor deploying it, and a good argument should rely principally on internal accuracy and validity. If we sincerely want to have a productive public discussion about gun control, then we need to be critical of every argument we encounter, irrespective of the experience of an individual, and discerning in our search for the truth. To do anything else is to set a dangerous precedent.