There are first responders — men and women who are heroes who bravely swarm to the rescue whenever there’s a tragic emergency — and then there’s the first response, by politicians who have nothing to add so they put out statements that invariably include the bromide that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims and their families. Admirable thought until we consider it has become a purely mechanical way of saying they have zero to say, that they’re concerned but impotent. At its worst, it is an excuse not to take meaningful action.
Then there’s the other cliche that’s currently in vogue. We hear it constantly after the massacre in Las Vegas by a heavily armed maniac who slaughtered or maimed hundreds of innocents who were simply having a good time; it’s some variation of “This is not the time to discuss politics” or “we’ll get to the gun-control discussion after the period of mourning.” It’s a favorite of government leaders who wish to deflect discussion about common-sense limits on the most insanely destructive killing machines. They have aligned themselves with the deadly arms industry’s lobbyists, the National Rifle Association and the rest, and have opposed any sort of controls on these weapons of mass destruction, like the ones in the arsenal of the Las Vegas monster. But what better time to talk about it?
In fact, Republicans and other arms merchant apologists are so spooked that they’re even saying they might “look into” making “bump stocks” illegal, which they’ve refused to do in the past. In case you’re not a homicidal weapon aficionado, a “bump stock” is a readily available add-on that can turn an already lethal semi-automatic assault rifle, where you have to pull the trigger each time you shoot someone, into a fully automatic one, where you literally don’t lift a finger as you spray mass murder around without exertion. Now even the NRA claims that it might support some sort of regulation on them. Of course, they didn’t say it would be meaningful regulation. At the same time, the GOP has discreetly put on hold legislation that would have made silencers legal so a shooter’s hearing isn’t imperiled. That’s truly the rationale advocates have given. So that’s what passes for progress, albeit minuscule. Or it could be that GOP leaders are simply hunkering down until after attention to this massacre is distracted.
We’ve gotten a taste of that from a story already competing with it, the one where NBC reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got so frustrated with President Donald Trump that he called his chief executive “a moron.” Actually, the reporter says it was “(expletive) moron.” The outburst reportedly happened in private. In Washington, very (expletive) little is private. So out trotted Tillerson to face newspeople, the ones he usually ignores, to go on camera pretending to deny he had called Trump “a moron,” with or without the adjective. “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that,” he responded, “I mean, this is what I don’t understand about Washington. Again, I’m not from this place, but the places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense.” He was obliged to go through the Trump grovel: “He loves his country,” said Tillerson, describing the boss. “He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart.” Once the obsequious bowing and scraping ritual was done, President Trump, who managed to escape his consoling trip to Las Vegas without embarrassing himself, told reporters he had “total confidence” in Tillerson, which may or may not be the kiss of death. Of course, he also accused NBC of putting out “fake news,” which always means it’s an accurate story.
He also held the line with his party’s refusal to enter the gun-control debate, insisting “We’ll talk about that at a later date.” That may seem moronic, even (expletive) moronic, but it works. The sharp focus on limiting civilian access to the weapons of war will quickly blur. Until the next massacre.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.