Some think that when a house collapses, it’s fair to ask about the condition of the roof. But for right-wing media outlets like Fox News, the murder of 59 people at a country music concert in Las Vegas on Sunday night is in no way the appropriate time to talk about gun control.
Typical was the reaction of Fox News host Sean Hannity, who opened Monday evening’s show with calls for unity, then proceeded to assail Democrats for their "absolutely despicable display" of partisanship. Anything beyond silent mourning, Hannity suggested, constituted a breach of civic decorum.
"The left has no shame," Hannity said.
This is the politics of sanctimony, and though both left and right practice it alike, it is especially dangerous when the issue at hand is guns. That’s because serious, responsible Republicans need to have their say as much as do Democrats who want an assault weapons ban or other restrictive measures. Only compromise will staunch the bloodshed. But the requisite public debate is impossible when Hannity and his ilk shout down any attempts at conversation with transparently insincere please for unity.
As if to underscore that very point, Hannity continued his segment on the “shameful” left with a clip of the former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, William J. Bratton bemoaning the lack of reasonable gun laws on CNN. Bratton, who spent nearly a half-century in law enforcement, must be surprised to learn that he is now member of the leftist vanguard. Perhaps, in an act of kindness, Hannity can send the former commissioner a gift subscription to The Nation.
Like many others on the right, Hannity retreated into a radical skepticism about motives of Las Vegas killer Stephen C. Paddock. “We don't know the motivation of this lunatic,” he said. "I can make a hundred different arguments. If it wasn't a gun, it would be a car or a bomb or whatever."
Ben Shapiro, editor of the conservatives Daily Wire, made a similar argument in a post titled “No, This Isn't The Time To Talk Gun Control.” Questions about Paddock’s motives were foremost among Shapiro’s concerns. But what would knowing his precise motive change? Would one motive make the crime worse while another may ameliorate it? This, the right cannot explain, even as it cautions us that “we may never know why.”
It must be said, however, that right-wing media feel no such compunction when a Muslim terrorist is suspected. Indeed, the killing in Las Vegas presents the right with a challenge, because the shooter was a white male who apparently harbored no extremist ideology, Islamic or otherwise. That makes the obviously salient fact of his gun obsession more difficult to ignore. There is, after all, not much else.
James Hodgkinson was also a white male. He, you may recall, opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in June, severely wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. It was quickly discovered that Hodgkinson was an avid supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, which allowed the more strident voices of the right to make the shooting a referendum on liberals. Congressional Democrats, said radio host Rush Limbaugh, “were writing the script for this guy.” He effectively blamed Sanders and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California for Hodgkinson’s rampage.
Paddock has made any such argument difficult, leaving behind no political manifesto. He appears to have had no ideological fixations. There were no signs of a mental break. That didn’t stop Limbaugh from trying. On Monday, he complained that a report that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Las Vegas attack had been too quickly debunked. “When they claim responsibility, it pretty much has been true,” a disappointed Limbaugh said. “They are surprisingly pretty disciplined.”
Others did not stray quite so far into delusion. Hannity’s primetime peer, Tucker Carlson, evinced skepticism about gun control on Monday night, albeit somewhat more subtly than his ever-outraged truth-teller-in-arms. He trotted out Representative Henry R. Cuellar, a Democrat of Texas, who does not believe in stricter gun control measures. “I think there are some people who believe in gun control — I don’t believe in gun control,” Cuellar said.
“Can you think of a single place in the United States that has become safe because of gun control?” Carlson asked. Cuellar could not. Neither could his interlocutor. Sure, one could fall into the error of thinking that guns had something to do with the killing in Las Vegas, but that is precisely why one watched Carlson, to be disabused of juvenile notions such as those.
“I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that,” Cuellar said, failing to mention that he’d received $3,000 from the National Rifle Association in the 2016 election cycle. Perhaps there is something complicated about that, too.
The Internet did not better than cable news. The conservative news website Carlson founded, The Daily Caller, defended the NRA as “one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations,” a uniquely generous assessment of an organization some have accused of outright white supremacy. It also published four separate stories on a CBS lawyer who was fired for a Facebook post that seemed to suggest the victims in Las Vegas were “Republican gun toters.”
Breitbart News, meanwhile, sought to portray gun control as an issue that worries only Hollywood elites. “Celebrities Melt Down, Rush to Call for Gun Control,” said one headline. There were also separate articles devoted to reactions from Lena Dunham, Lady Gaga and Tom Brokaw.
While it is true that liberal news outlets — The New Yorker, the editorial pages of The New York Times — engage in advocacy of their own, they don’t do so with ad hominen attacks, misrepresentations of fact and racial innuendo. Acutely dismaying about most responses from right-wing outlets is the refusal to initiate a substantive conversation, of the sort that would have been possible some years ago.
The most revealing treatment of this latest massacre may have come from Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News anchor who left the network amidst a litany sexual misconduct allegations. Writing on his website, O’Reilly declared, “This is the price of freedom.” In other words, Americans will keep dying, but the Second Amendment is worth it. It’s an alarming sentiment, especially to those of us who think there’s more to life than hauling around an assault rifle.
But unlike so much of the discourse on the right, at least this was honest.