On Sunday, a young man walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opened fire. He killed 26 people and wounded about a dozen more. Among the dead are the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, a woman who was eight months pregnant and children as young as 5 years old. The death toll could continue to rise, and as it stands, it accounts for about 7 percent of the town’s population — per census numbers from the year 2000 — and a third of the congregation’s typical Sunday attendance. Everything about this story is awful.
Though violent crime rates overall are historically low right now, mass shootings like this have become more frequent and more deadly in recent years. That fact and the fear it understandably engenders has contributed to increasingly vitriolic conversations about gun policy when each new tragedy strikes, and the first 24 hours after this Texas shooting were no exception.
This time around, debate reached a fever pitch over whether public offerings of “thoughts and prayers” are a sincere and legitimate response to what happened or a cowardly and duplicitous way for pro-gun rights politicians to avoid talking policy. Here are some tweets typical of this debate, some more measured than others:
On this subject I’d like to make two points.
First, the critics of “thoughts and prayers” are not wrong that the phrase has become a lazy formula for public figures who want to get a quick, bland statement out after a tragedy. It is, ironically enough, almost always used thoughtlessly and, I’m willing to bet, frequently asserted when no prayer has happened, either.
In an age when the 24-hour news cycle brings us a constant stream of reports of one new tragedy after another, politicians who wish to comment on this sort of event owe the victims at least a tiny bit of real thought before they weigh in.
That’s true whatever you believe about the policy issues any given tragedy raises. It is 0 percent surprising this phrase has begun to grate.
Second, it is always unhelpful to accuse people who disagree with us politically of having bad intentions. Talking policy after tragedy is hard enough without such accusations.
Let me change the subject to show what I mean: I think we should end the failed drug war and legalize all drugs. I believe this for reasons of principle (it’s not the government’s job to control what we choose to consume) and practicality (the drug war has been enormously expensive and ineffective at lowering drug use) alike.
I also believe it on humanitarian grounds, both because some drugs have important medical value, and because I think there’s excellent evidence that legalizing drugs is the best way to confront the addiction, overdoses, trafficking, gang violence and other ills drug use and trade occasion. In short, a big reason — in fact, the main reason — I want to legalize drugs is that I believe it would save a lot of lives.
I also realize many people sincerely disagree with me about this. Maybe you do. Maybe you think legalizing drugs would lead to more suffering. I think you’re wrong, just as you think I’m wrong, but I hope we can recognize neither of us has bad intentions here.
Neither of us is failing to value human life. We disagree on what policy will help people most, but our goal — reducing addition, violence, etc. — is the same. I’ll argue all day that your support for the drug war is deeply, disastrously wrong, but I’m never going to accuse you of wanting people to die, and I hope you’ll afford me the same courtesy.
Now back to the gun issue. The way some people on the left talk about the gun rights crowd reminds me of how some people on the right talk about those who want to legalize drugs: In both cases there is a totally uncharitable insistence that the other side doesn’t care about loss of life caused by guns or drugs, when for the vast majority that’s just not true.
Yes, there are corrupt politicians who care more about their campaign bank accounts than representing their constituents well, but most of us do not fall into that category. “Thoughts and prayers” is used way too flippantly — and politicians especially should be held accountable for that — but we will never get around to a productive conversation about gun policy and crime (or any similarly volatile topic) in America if we persist in accusing each other of bad intentions and apathy about human life.
So in the spirit of charity in debate, let me leave you with two articles worth reading: If you’re generally pro-gun rights and you don’t understand the anger over “thoughts and prayers,” read “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane” from Kirsten Powers at The Washington Post. And if you’re generally pro-gun control and you don’t understand how “thoughts and prayers” can feel like an acceptable response, read “The case for ‘thoughts and prayers’ — even if you don’t believe in God” by Katelyn Beaty at The Atlantic.