Newtown and the Narrative of “Different”

Mark Warner joined the chorus labeling Newtown as a "different" event

Mark Warner joined the chorus labeling Newtown as a “different” event

The most striking aspect of the response to the Newtown shootings is not just the increase in calls for increased gun control measures — that always happens. What’s been striking is the subtle, but persistent narrative across the media and among Democratic and some Republican politicians labeling this specific event as different or a “game changer.”

It’s a form of rhetorical momentum that has disrupted the standard counter-offensive calling for a “moratorium on discussing gun control” or “respecting law-abiding gun owners.” When the shooting itself is “different” the same tired responses strike the ear as out of place and insufficient. Indeed, conservatives are reeling in response, implicitly bolstering the narrative by trying to explain why this attack was “different.” We all chuckle in shock at Charlotte Allen when she describes this attack as “different” because of all the sissy girls working at the school, but Allen is only making the problem worse for her gun lobby allies by inviting the conversation to continue to explore why Newtown is “different.”

Like all momentum, it has grown upon itself. Initially, the media started calling attention to the sheer number of young victims, taking this event out of the normal mass shooting scenario Americans have unfortunately come to expect. In reality, the shooting was not wildly unique from the norm. The Virginia Tech shootings claimed 33 young lives. While the students were college students, the scope of the carnage should was not different than Newtown. Meanwhile, in the late 80s, a shooter killed 5 children aged 6-9 and injured 30 more. These victims closely matched those in Newtown. No shooting is the same, but the markers that the media seized upon as “different” have been present before.

But as the media kept calling the event “different,” it began to shape the country’s reaction. At the same time established pro-gun Democrats and a few Republicans gave public — if vague — support to gun control measures. And the cycle reinforces itself. The media narrative began to seize on the fact that politicians responded to the shooting differently as proof that the shooting really was a game changer.

This phenomenon appears to be organic. It’s almost as though gun control advocates don’t quite grasp how powerful this narrative is. President Obama used his speech to mention that this marked the fourth major shooting of his presidency, a fact that resonates with long-time gun control supporters, but one that implicitly reconnects this tragedy with the others that the American public largely allowed to fade away without action. At least Obama massaged this connection to suggest that the cumulative effect of the four tragedies has created a new moment in the gun control debate, but it didn’t tap into the same momentum gaining steam.

Who knows if this momentum will continue. Other events, from the fiscal cliff to Benghazi testimony will jockey to dislodge the shooting from the American psyche. Conservatives may wise up and push back against the idea that this attack was “different” and begin a “sameness” narrative. “Democrats are proposing the same old solutions that don’t work,” they will say, hoodwinking Americans into believing that policies like the assault weapons ban “failed.”

Sometimes how we should talk about something runs contrary to our feelings. Gun control advocates believe that every death from gun violence demands a response. They work overtime to tie this event to the broader problem by pointing out that 8 kids die from guns every day. And this may be true and it matters to sympathetic audiences (like most of the audience for this site I’d wager), but it’s time to win a majority coalition. It’s time to suppress those feelings and recognize that the country is hungry for action because they don’t want to believe Newtown is the same. It may hurt the pride of gun control advocates, but if it succeeds in getting more sensible policies, it will all be worth it.

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