©Photo by Gage Skidmore
Note: This piece attempts to unpack Beto O’Rourke’s message on gun violence in America and how that message contrasts with the general 2020 political landscape. O’Rourke has since dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary. As the primary continues, we shall see if other candidates are able to take up O’Rourke’s momentum to counter the stagnant national debate on gun control or if the cycle of national apathy and fatigue will continue.
During the third Democratic presidential primary debate, Beto O’Rourke’s answer on gun violence was decidedly one of the most engaging and passionate moments of the night. Asked about the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, O’Rourke mourned for his hometown and the victims of gun violence in Odessa. “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not gonna allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore” elicited loud cheers from the audience. The showing of emotion seemed like a blip in an otherwise mundane evening. As someone watching the debate at home, why did it feel so good to see a candidate express the emotions I was feeling in the wake of inconceivable violence?
Gun violence and the gun control debate seem to differ from other issues in its effect on my emotional processing. Other members of my generation agree, according to experts. As a part of the “school shooting” generation, we went to elementary, middle, and high school with the knowledge that we were entering a potential battlefield. And it has become apparent that this potential battlefield extends to practically every public space we enter. According to the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of Gen Z report mass shootings as a significant source of stress. 72% say the same about school shootings or the possibility of them occurring. Data shows that this is a fact: mass shootings in America are a continuously present threat and they are becoming increasingly more deadly.
However, this stark reality is met with a grim acceptance: any potential massacre will be met with vapid, superficial empathy from people in power. Politicians express thoughts and prayers, followed by little to no action. The country has been lulled into what experts call disaster fatigue. Natural feelings of fear and pain are not mirrored by the media and people in power. Rather, the gun control debate and its unwillingness to deal with national trauma teaches us that we shouldn’t be feeling anything when we watch our peers shot down by weapons of war. We feel as if no one else is upset or alarmed. We act as if it is normal.
Ignored by the media, Gen Z has turned to humor as a way to process the trauma of gun violence, especially in schools. School shootings are the subject of many memes on social media in attempts to laugh at our own anxiety and frustration. Many memes show new school safety policies emerging such as clear backpacks and ID tags with a clip from the song “Bulletproof” by La Roux: “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof.” The notion that any of these reforms will stand up against weapons of war is laughable. Optimism is a joke. It’s not that mass murder in schools is an easy laugh, but how else would Gen Z push back against an apathetic political system? The memes are an example of our generation’s coping mechanisms. Our depressingly unique familiarity with death turns to irony to spite an out of touch political and media system.
Having internalized this cynical outlook myself, I found Beto O’Rourke’s anger in the debate to be a moment of clarity. Instead of the mind-numbing cognitive dissonance I expect to experience when politicians speak about gun violence with cold realism, O’Rourke came close to mirroring how I feel about the issue. The anger was a refreshing affirmation that was needed in the debate. Rewatching his answer, you can hear the audience erupt into an applause that feels cathartic.
This momentum met a roadblock during the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate initiated by Pete Buttigieg. When asked about O’Rourke’s previous answer supporting a buy back AR-15s and AK-47s, Buttigieg criticized the policy and argued that Americans deserve action now. After listing policies “we can’t wait for,” such as universal background checks and red flag laws, Buttigieg said “we cannot wait for purity tests, we have to just get something done.”
The exchange represented two models of politician; one that reflects the thoughts and feelings of their constituents, and one that forwards realistic legislative efforts in the interest of their constituents. Though the substance of Buttigieg’s opposition to O’Rourke’s stance on gun control reforms was lost on me, I understand what he was trying to do. Answering idealism fueled by righteous anger with cool, measured realism is a way to differentiate yourself as a candidate in a crowded primary field. However, politicians have a duty to be honest in expressing emotion. America is hurting. Seeing the anger and frustration reflected in primary candidates will get America to the polls, while shooting down gun control policies in favor of “actually do[ing] things” will only add to national apathy and fatigue.