On the face of it, the value generated by a mass shooting is negative. People are murdered and injured. But it is important to go beneath the bloody surface and explore the depths in terms of value.
From an economic standpoint, a mass shooting has obvious negative value; but it also has positive economic value for some. Most obviously there is the death cost of a mass shooting. There is lost income, lost taxes, lost consumption of goods and services, and funeral expenses. The injured also suffer economic loss—they typically must pay their own medical expenses and they lose time from their life. But the medical bills they pay are income for others.
While it does not always occur, the building where a mass shooting occurs is sometimes closed and replaced. This comes at a high cost but does generate positive value for those constructing the new building.
A common response to mass shootings, especially those in schools, is to increase security. Guards are hired, people are trained, buildings are hardened, software is purchased—a loss for some, a gain for others.
While it might seem odd, the gun industry can benefit economically from a mass shooting. After the most recent shootings in August, the stock of gun manufacturers increased. This is because people think that tougher gun laws might be passed, so there is a rush to buy weapons and ammunition. However, the long-term impact of mass shootings on the gun industry is likely to be negative. While the above are important (most especially the deaths and injuries) my focus will be on the political value of mass shootings.
Republican politicians clearly recognize the political value of mass shootings—at least to Democrats who favor gun control. When a mass shooting occurs, two standard tactics are to assert that it is not time to talk about gun control and to accuse Democrats of trying to score political points. I will consider each of these in turn.
The assertion that after a mass shooting is not the right time to talk about gun control does have some merit. Emotion driven decisions made in haste tend to be inferior to those resulting from cool and deliberate consideration. A good example of this is the flood of laws passed in response to 9/11. That said, there is also a negative side to waiting for people to cool down: motivation and political will can fade thus leading to nothing being done. When people debated acting against slavery in the United States, there was a similar dispute between those who proposed gradualism and those who demanded action. Those in favor of immediate action often used an analogy to rescuing people from a fire: gradually removing them from a burning house would be a terrible idea. Likewise for addressing slavery and, perhaps, gun violence.
One obvious response to the Republicans who use this tactic is to point out that they do not hold to it consistently—they say it after every mass shooting, but not across the board in situations of intense emotion and calls for hasty action. As such, it seems likely they are using the “not the time” rhetorical device. The goal of this device is not to call for calm deliberation but to delay or prevent action. Since the Republicans tend to not act against gun violence, it seems reasonable to infer that they are using “not the time” rhetorically rather than as a serious call for calm deliberation. Now to the second tactic. To be fair, Democrats who use this rhetorical tactic against Republicans are equally as guilty of using it.
When the Democrats try to act in response to a mass shooting, Republican politicians typically accuse them of trying to score political points (of playing politics). Ironically, people who make this accusation often seem to be trying to score political points by accusing the other side of trying to score political points.
On the one hand, this charge can have merit. If a Democrat is cynically using a mass shooting politically without care or concern for the victims, then they would be acting in a morally problematic way. That said, there is the question of whether a specific accused Democrat is doing this or not—the challenge is to determine their motivation. While this is relevant to the ethics of the person, what is more important is that motivations are irrelevant to whether the person’s claims are true and whether their proposals are good.
Attacking someone for playing politics and rejecting their claims would be to fall into a type of ad hominem which could be called the “accusation of playing politics fallacy.” The form is as follows:
Premise 1: Politician A accuses politician B of trying to score political points by playing politics about subject S.
Premise 2: Politician B makes claim C about subject S.
Conclusion: Claim C is false.
This is obviously bad logic—even if one politician is trying to score political points, this does not prove that their claim is not true. While assessing their motives is relevant to assessing their ethics, their motives have no bearing on their claim being true or false.
The “accusation of playing politics” can also be a rhetorical device—it can be seen as a type of red herring in which one tries to switch the discussion from one issue to another. In the case of mass shootings, the goal is to switch the issue from whether there should be more gun control to whether Democrats are playing politics. The end game is, of course, to keep attention away from the original issue.
This is not to deny that Democrats and Republicans are playing politics. Democrats do try to use mass shootings to get more gun laws passed, Republicans try to prevent this with the two methods described above. Some pro-gun people also try to score political points off mass shootings by appealing to fear that the Democrats will try to do something about mass shootings. But what is important, at least to people who would prefer less mass shootings, is addressing the problem of mass shootings and gun violence. This does require doing politics and the time to do so, as always, is now.