The right and the left owe more than empty words to the victims of a school shooting

The massacre of nineteen children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, had horribly familiar overtones.

A reporter at the school scene reported that the agonizing cries of family members could be heard from the parking lot.

This chilling news was eerily reminiscent of reports of the Sandy Hook tragedy a decade ago, where parents waiting at a fire station were gradually excused until it was announced that, if they were still present , their child was dead.

Then, too, sympathizers could hear cries from the street.

Over the past thirty years of mass shootings, it has also become commonplace to express our rage and exasperation at the offering of “thoughts and prayers”.

It has not always been so. In the early years of the mass shootings, directing such sentiments toward the affected families and community was a relatively uncontroversial move.

But the public quickly, and rightly, grew weary of this stereotypical response when it came from politicians who had done nothing to advance gun control policies and who were seen as beholden to the National Rifle Association. Thoughts and prayers became synonymous with cruel and odious hypocrisy.

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In 2015, after eight students and a professor were killed at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, President Barack Obama captured what many Americans were thinking when he said, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s time to act.

Hollow prayers, meaningless indignation

Over the years, our disapproval of thoughts and prayers has grown to the point that no one can express them, at least in these terms. We have come to view thoughts and prayers as empty words, hypocritical when spoken by irresponsible politicians, and meaningless when spoken by anyone.

The day after the Uvalde shooting, my social media feeds were filled with people shouting sentiments to no one in particular: “Shut up with your thoughts and prayers and do something!” These messages cascaded down my screen, each filled with indignation.

I am sympathetic to the impetus behind these posts. We all need comfort in the face of an indescribable tragedy; doing something useful would comfort us; and we convinced ourselves that shouting for someone to do something helps.

In doing so, we are mistaken.

In reality, we need all possible thoughts and prayers, as long as they are sincere. Indeed, we have partly failed to make progress on sensible gun regulation precisely because we have failed to keep these tragedies in our thoughts.

We rage for a day or two. We post memes on Facebook. And then Americans’ notoriously short attention span kicks in and we turn our attention elsewhere.

Make no mistake: opponents of regulation are counting on us to do it. They think we have a noisy but disorganized short game and no long game worth worrying about afterwards. For thirty years, we have proven them right.

Moreover, shouting that some unspecified person must do something unspecified about these tragedies has no more content than “thoughts and prayers.” The painful truth is that we have not only failed to make progress on this issue as a nation; we have failed as individuals. After three decades, we have simply exchanged one hollow vocabulary for another.

The individual imperative

The uncomfortable fact is that we cannot outsource our moral responsibility for these tragedies. We cannot cry out in the darkness, congratulate ourselves on our moral courage and consider it a step forward. We always dance on the spot.

What happened at Uvalde will continue to happen until each of us works for a different outcome. We need to support organizations that fight for sensible regulation. We must put our weight behind the political candidates who have worked to understand the problem and develop concrete and achievable political solutions.

We can start by looking at Nicolas Kristof’s well-researched article “How to Reduce Shots”, first published in The New York Times in 2017 and recently updated. Then, with a better understanding of strategies that might help, we can look at the work done by groups like Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, Sandy Hook Promise, and Brady.

Above all, we will be able to know the position of our elected officials on this issue. We can write to them. And we can remind them that this is not a partisan issue: for example, polls show that the vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, want thorough background checks.

In short, we must mobilize and speak out, demand thoughtful and competent responses to the challenges ahead, and reinforce our demands with our votes, our resources and our vigilance.

Until each of us makes it our personal mission, it’s just words, words and words. Full of sound and fury. Meaning nothing. Our bloodied children buried under entire mountains.

Len Niehoff is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a practicing attorney.

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