Las Vegas shooting: The gun control debate is so toxic there's no point talking about it

Las Vegas shooting: The gun control debate is so toxic there's no point talking about it

Las Vegas shooting: The gun control debate is so toxic there's no point talking about it

Updated 4 October 2017, 20:55 AEDT

The US has such a partisan divide on gun control that there's no point in talking about it in the aftermath of shootings, writes John Barron.

In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said now is not the time to talk about gun control.

Three weeks ago, in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the administrator of Mr Trump's Environment Protection Agency Scott Pruitt said it was not the time to talk about climate change.

So why is it every time the perpetrator of a mass shooting, bombing, car, van, knife or plane attack is a Muslim, it's apparently exactly the right time to talk about "radical Islamic terrorism"?

After the last most deadly shooting of 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in June 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted: "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness and vigilance. We must be smart!"

After the Las Vegas attack, is it that right time to point out that Stephen Paddock's profile as an ageing, white, male real-estate developer who liked casinos is similar to Trump voters — or Trump himself?

The answer is no: none of it is constructive. The answer is still no if it turns out Paddock had been acting on behalf of Islamic State, as the terrorist group claimed (to widespread scepticism).

Partisan divide holds strong

To an extent, Ms Huckabee-Sanders and Mr Pruitt are right, and Mr Trump and others on both sides of politics should follow the same rule of thumb in the aftermath of any act of violence or devastating natural disaster.

Now is simply not the time to have a politically charged discussion. It inflames emotions and entrenches positions that are already miles apart.

And besides, it doesn't seem to make any difference.

In polls taken after the Orlando shooting during last year's presidential campaign, three-quarters of Clinton supporters wanted a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, but just a third of Trump supporters agreed.

Republicans are more than twice as likely to be gun owners than are Democrats — 49 per cent compared to 22 per cent. On the question of is it more important to control gun ownership than protect gun rights, 79 per cent of Democrats favour gun control, compared to just 9 per cent of Republicans.

A similar partisan divide emerges in polls on climate change, with only 15 per cent of Republicans believing the earth's warming is mostly due to human activity, compared to 79 per cent of Democrats.

Worst time to change minds

But aren't catastrophic events an opportunity to inform people and change minds?

No, in fact it might be the worst possible time.

Studies have found that evidence that contradicts a strongly held belief is rejected by parts of the human brain, in a response similar to the body's protective immune system. Put simply, when confronted or attacked, our brains reflexively and vigorously defend our existing position.

Other research into people who (falsely) believe vaccinations cause autism, have shown a "double down" effect — the more actual facts those subjects are presented with, the less likely they are to change their minds.

Americans increasingly select sources of information that confirm their opinions, and they become amplified by the echo chamber of pundits and social media.

There's never a good time

Is there a good time to talk about things?

Well, the massacre of 20 first graders, along with six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, would have seemed like a good time.

Since then there have been literally dozens of attempts in Washington to legislate stricter gun control laws, from modest measures requiring mental health and police background checks for weapons sold online or at gun shows, to an attempted ban on the sale of assault weapons.

Despite a whole lot of talking, none passed, and that was when Democrats still controlled the Senate and the White House, which are now both in the hands of Republicans along with the House.

Mr Trump has courted the gun rights vote, and his favourite radio host Alex Jones even denies Sandy Hook took place.

Now he's told his listeners the Las Vegas attack was a "false flag" and "scripted" by the "deep state" forces of government.

Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore at least admits Sandy Hook happened — but he believes those children were gunned down because of "people forgetting the law of God".

Fox News is warning its viewers that liberals will use Las Vegas to try and take their guns away.

But the killings will go on

Meanwhile, the killings continue. Not just headline-grabbing massacres like Las Vegas, Orlando or Sandy Hook, but literally hundreds of other mass killings claiming 10,000 American lives each year.

But gun rights proponents deny there is any connection between that statistic and having military-style machine guns in the hands of anyone who pays a few hundred bucks.

And those gun sales are soaring, fuelled by fears of a crackdown. The US produced 11 million guns in the year after Sandy Hook — doubling the number of just two years before the massacre.

We've seen the devastation caused to Puerto Rico, Houston, and parts of Florida from a historically devastating hurricane season, made demonstrably worse, scientists say, by warmer waters and higher sea levels.

The EPA's Mr Pruitt is unwinding Obama-era restrictions on carbon emissions because, Mr Pruitt says, while he doesn't think the science is settled, he believes carbon dioxide doesn't cause global warming.

Sadly, in the face of so much denialism, there is scant evidence that talking about any of it will help.

Now is just not the time.