On Thursday morning, Donald Trump addressed the country about Wednesday’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left at least 17 dead and 15 injured, many of them children. Trump blamed the carnage in part on the shooter’s “mental health” and on kids feeling alone. He also called on Americans to “work together to create a culture in our country that embraces the dignity of life.”
When politicians invoke the concept of a culture of life or the dignity of life, they’re usually referring to abortion. “Over time, our culture of life in this country has started sliding toward a culture of death,” Trump said in an op-ed he wrote two years ago to prove his anti-choice bona fides as a presidential candidate. He marked the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which forbade states from outlawing most abortions, as the start of this slide. Catholic leaders and scholars usually extend the culture/dignity of life ideology to include opposition to euthanasia and the death penalty; some take it further to oppose unwarranted military action and support for organ donation. But since the Republican Party’s platform supports capital punishment and swoons over defense funding, GOP leaders almost always confine their “life” talk to matters of reproduction.
Every politician, and almost every person, would agree that life is something worth preserving. Where the conflict comes in, usually along partisan lines, is around whose lives deserve protecting. The Republican Party is notorious for placing greater value on the potential for life—an ovum or fetus—than on the existing life of a woman. Last year, the party decimated Medicaid, which covers half of all births in the U.S., made it harder for poor women to prevent pregnancies, slashed protections for women with “pre-existing conditions” like having experienced a sexual assault or Cesarean section, and pushed to let states allow insurance companies to drop maternity care from their plans. At Trump’s first State of the Union address, he told a story of a homeless pregnant woman addicted to heroin and the cop who scolded her and asked to adopt her fetus; Trump praised the cop as a hero and never mentioned what happened to the woman. He also exploited the deaths of people of color to argue for policies that will compromise the lives and dignity of thousands of immigrants. One of Trump’s top Department of Health and Human Services officials forced an immigrant teen into an unnecessary hospital exam, delaying the second part of her in-progress medication abortion, just to see if he could subject her to an untested medical procedure.
In the debate over guns and mass killings, the “culture of life” argument doesn’t make much sense, at least as far as the right wing’s position is concerned. After every school shooting, the GOP’s party line is that schools should have more armed guards ready to protect students. Conservatives raised this argument after Wednesday’s shooting, even though the Parkland school was required to have an armed security officer, and did. Instead of trying to keep guns away from children, Republican lawmakers are arguing that a school is a “soft target” if it doesn’t have an arsenal of weapons at its disposal. All available data suggests that a “good guy” with a gun will almost never be able to stop a “bad guy” with a gun; more guns in an in-progress massacre would only lead to more carnage. A culture that encourages schools and churches to arm themselves with deadly weapons is antithetical to the “culture of life” Republicans claim to support.
A policy that affirms the dignity of life should seek to prevent death and injury, and there is a wealth of data connecting guns to loss of life. The main fear exploited by the NRA and its allies is that of a deadly home invasion. But the annual per-person risk of dying during a home invasion is 0.0000002—in other words, zero. Owning a gun doubles a person’s risk of homicide and triples her risk of suicide, and the gun is far more likely to be used to intimidate a family member or partner than to be used for protection. The simple presence of a gun in a home makes domestic violence five times more likely to lead to murder. After controlling for age, race, region, poverty, unemployment, education, divorce rate, alcohol use, and several other potentially mitigating factors, researchers found that higher levels of gun ownership in a state corresponded to higher rates of women being killed by people they know—but not by strangers, the people gun lovers usually expect to invade their homes.
Why, if all scientific knowledge points to the truth that more guns means more death, do politicians keep doubling down on both the “life” stuff and the pro-gun stuff? One answer is money: The National Rifle Association is a famously rich and powerful lobbying group that fills conservative pockets with campaign cash. But the NRA is wealthy in large part because gun owners, the majority of whom think there should be more gun control, support it. They are scared of being defenseless against an unnamed, unproven threat, and they are scared the government will someday confiscate their weapons, which is why they hurry up and buy more guns every time there’s a mass shooting.
In this sense, Trump is right. The impulse to self-arm, even when the data show you’ll probably use it to kill yourself or a loved one rather than a faceless predator, is undergirded by a culture that can only be described as a culture of death. In America, guns are seen as a legitimate hobby. Even gun control advocates hasten to make exceptions for people who shoot for sport, who collect historical weapons, or who amass several handguns to discharge at the shooting range or somewhere out in the woods. Many progressives were raised around guns and don’t see them as a universal ill. In responsible hands, a common gun-owner refrain goes, a gun is perfectly safe. But responsible hands still make human errors, and with a gun, a minor error can have deadly consequences.
The idea that guns are mostly benign is essential to the culture of death that allows the NRA to exert such power over U.S. politics, and mass murderers to execute their plans with ease. Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who has confessed to the Parkland shooting, owned an AR-15 and posted photos of several other guns on social media. He was and is, according to several accounts from classmates and neighbors, obsessed with weapons. Cruz exhibited several warning signs of dangerous behavior, such as abusing animals and telling other students he was going to shoot up the school. But in this country, where parents often buy guns for their children as gifts and there’s no legal age requirement for shooting a firearm, Cruz’s delight in deadly weaponry would have otherwise been little cause for concern. In 2012, 31 percent of U.S. households contained at least one gun and at least one child. Guns are so deeply embedded in every corner of American culture that when children or adults display an interest in firearms, most people don’t bother to ask why. And, because of the perverted legacy of the Second Amendment, when they start amassing an arsenal, there’s no way to tell them to stop.
To confront the issue of gun violence, advocates must confront both U.S. policy and U.S. culture. A culture that affirms the dignity of life will not accept a passion for killing machines as normal. It is not normal, and it should not be OK, for a person to spend his downtime carrying and discharging deadly weapons the way other people play sports. Shooting organizations that train members like militias should have no place in a healthy society that believes in the value of life. It’s worth questioning what about playing with the ability to kill and be killed appeals to a certain segment of the population. To combat the culture of death that emboldens the gun owners who give gun manufacturers and the NRA their power, gun-control advocates can no longer dismiss as a hobby a fascination with the power to harm.