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The limitations of online debates over gun control

November 10, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

On April 16, 2007, distressing scenes of first responders reacting to the Virginia Tech massacre played on our living room TV while my parents set the table so that we could enjoy the cake my mother made for my sister’s third birthday. The next day at school, my classmates and I were encouraged to wear maroon and orange in order to honor the victims of a tragedy that had happened just a few hours south of us. We were nonetheless too young and naive to truly understand the horror of what had become, at that point, the worst mass shooting in American history.

In the decade since then, mass shootings have become more frequent and information about them has become more readily available. This combination of forces seems to have desensitized us to the horrific epidemic that plagues this country. News alerts were sent out minutes after the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas and it did not take long before the larger public learned that it would become among the deadliest mass shootings in modern history. What is even more disturbing is that this massacre occurred right as stories about the worst mass shooting in U.S. history of just a few weeks ago seemed to be tapering out.

The increasingly fast-paced transfer of information over social media contributes to the complacency with which many tend to approach, or entirely evade, the issue of gun control. In the twenty-four hours after the shooting, Donald Trump devoted two tweets to sending his condolences to the victims but then continued to pump out bombastic tweets about his current trip to Asia and the purging of the government in Saudi Arabia. Kellyanne Conway’s tweets were similarly off-topic. After a brief remark about the Texas shooting, Conway returned to pumping out inflammatory tweets about the Democratic Party.

Those of us on the other side of the aisle must also consider how technology has allowed us to become desensitized to mass shootings. We have arrived at a dismal point in our culture where we angrily advocate for stronger gun control laws on social media, but then we allow the rapid online news cycle to run its course and eventually let events fall by the wayside.

The democratization of information as a result of social media sites is a necessary development as it encourages broader political engagement. However, it allows liberals to get bogged down in short-lived and semantic debates over Trump’s comments about the Texas shooter’s mental health when we should instead be pressing Republicans on how beholden their politicians are to the interests of the National Rifle Association.

Though the power of social media to enact change should not be underestimated, change must also be pursued through offline political engagement. A vote for a candidate who stands for restricting ownership of automatic weapons can obviously be far more effective than a tweet at John McCain questioning why he has received upwards of $7 million from the NRA. While the power of a tweet has increased exponentially thanks to this president’s proclivity for social media, next year’s midterm election gives the populace an opportunity to turn the tide through the power of the ballot.

On Tuesday in Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam was elected governor and many seats in the state legislature were flipped from red to blue, exemplifying the seismic change that can occur once political agitation online transfers over to the ballot box. From now until next November, it is imperative that those fed up with the status quo regarding gun control maintain the momentum fostered online and translate that into tangible political action.

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