Brooks and Capehart on the wave of gun violence in America

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart join William Brangham to discuss the week in politics, including President Biden's plea for "common sense" gun reform amid a spate of mass shootings and the potential for legislation on Capitol Hill to address the issue.

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  • William Brangham:

    There has been another spate of carnage and death this week. A dozen mass shootings have left 12 dead and nearly 60 more injured.

    And, as we mentioned, last night, the president delivered another nationally televised plea for commonsense reform. But meaningful action continues to look like a legislative long shot on Capitol Hill.

    That brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post.

    Gentlemen, very nice to see you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Nice to see you too, William.

  • William Brangham:

    David, we heard the president last night acknowledge that we are in this grotesque cycle of carnage, that innocent people are murdered by someone wielding these enormously powerful weapons, and he says we have to act.

    You have recently, sitting in that chair, said that these events move public opinion in a meaningful way, maybe not quickly, but they do. Do you think that is going to matter to the negotiators here in Washington, D.C.?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it's a long-term process.

    They move public opinion in sort of a ratcheted fashion, that you see a rise for support for gun regulation after, and then it trips down, but not back to where it was. So, it's — it moves up. And the public opinion is gradually shifting.

    But this is a — probably a decades-long process. And while this is happening, the Republican Party has been moved — moving firmer into more gun friendly, and not only gun friendly, but gun aggressively friendly direction.

    And so for — the identity of conservatism has become Gods and guns, or borders, bullets, and babies, as one candidate said it. And so supporting guns has become almost a talisman, a sort of visual signature for Republicans, what T.S. Eliot used to call an objective correlative, like the visual thing to symbolize an entire philosophy.

    And so I think what the president said was compelling, but I don't think the Republican Party — if anything, they're moving in a very, very different direction.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, as David says, we know Chris Murphy is currently talking with Republican senators. And he hints that there's some idea of progress.

    Others caution us that that Mitch McConnell has his eye on the midterms, and he recognizes what his base voters, as David is describing, what those primary voters care about. And it's guns. And so he's not going to allow anything to happen.

    Do you have any hope that this set of latest tragedies is going to do anything?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I mean, I always have hope, but I'm a realist.

    We have been here before, too many times before. The fact that Senator Murphy is sitting with a bipartisan group of senators and they're talking, that's a good thing. I want them to talk.

    But I have no faith that they will get to a point where they will have a press conference where they announce: Here's our framework. Here's our bill. Here's our language. Here are the items that we are calling for, and then to actually get that piece of legislation to a vote that breaks a filibuster.

    I mean, I have just laid out about three or four hurdles right there. If the slaughter of babies at Newtown elementary school — or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 10 years ago in December wasn't enough to move the debate to the point where we're talking about gun safety laws, or the murder of high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, if that then wasn't enough, then why should anyone expect the murder of 10 grade schoolers in Uvalde, Texas, to move — to move this conversation?

    It pains me to have to say that, but I have seen this horrible Groundhog Day movie too many times. And I have heard the, yeah, yeah, yeah out of Mitch McConnell too many times to believe that the action and the things that Senator Murphy is pouring his heart and soul into — I don't doubt his sincerity. He is absolutely sincere.

    I do doubt the sincerity of the people around that table, that they actually want to get something done.

  • William Brangham:

    David, we know that it is these mass shootings that Garner all the attention. All the names that you riddled off, Jonathan, we know those so well.

    But the analysis of gun deaths in America show that it's suicides and these much-less-publicized homicides that happen all the time that's really the bulk of deaths because of firearms.

    When you look at the policy prescriptions that people are talking about, are there things that you think, if we could get this passed, this would make a dent in all of those deaths?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think, if you look at the history of gun regulation, assault weapons bans and other things, and if you look at the social science research, it's underwhelming. The effect of these is not nothing, but it's underwhelming in actually preventing violence and crime.

    The one area where I think the research shows the gun regulation can really make a difference is on suicides. A lot of people commit suicides because they have a mood crash and there's a gun right there. And if you can make it harder to have a gun right there, then they will not commit suicide. A lot of people who attempt suicide never attempt it again.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    And so I think the evidence is that that's the sort of thing where you can really have an effect.

    And we should probably not be focusing — as much as our hearts are rendered by events that Jonathan described, gun violence is the main thing, as you said. And so I do think, if we can focus on regulating the guns for — at those moments — and it's also important for Democrats to understand where Republicans are.

    Republicans see guns as a way to defend their family. And so one of the things I think Democrats have not done, and I think Joe Biden did a pretty decent job in his remarks this week of saying, I honor gun owners. I honor responsible gun ownership. And that's important too.

  • William Brangham:

    And we should celebrate them, he said.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    And — but we should distinguish between defensive gun use, which is people defending their family, they feel threatened by crime, and offensive use. And a lot of the weapons, a lot of the ammunition is for offensive use. And there's no place for offensive gun use in our society. That is just — we call that murder.

    And so I think reframing it in a way that would honor the gun owners in America is a potential way to shift the debate, so we're not stuck in this Groundhog Day that we have been in.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, some of the things that David is mentioning do have a lot of broad appeal.

    But, as David is pointing out, it's very difficult for Republicans to embrace those things. I mean, last night, I talked with a guy who was a former legislator in Colorado. There was a terrible murder of a sheriff's deputy in his district, and by a severely mentally ill young man.

    He tried to pass a red flag law in Colorado, and he was hammered for it. The gun rights groups came out and blasted him for it. He — the bill didn't pass. He lost the election.

    And this kind of a thing is very, very difficult for Republicans to do, what David is saying, which is to embrace even the most minor things.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I'm — so I'm confused by something.

    So, whenever any of these things, these mass shootings happen, or when we get into a discussion about gun safety or gun control, whatever you want to call it, that we always hear that the majority of gun owners, the majority of the members of the NRA, they're law-abiding, and they support all of these background checks and everything, right?

    But then I hear stories like this where legislators who apparently try to reflect the broader membership of the NRA to do the right thing, they get hammered by gun rights groups.

    So, at some point, someone is going to have to have the courage, like this legislator that you talked about — yes, he lost his election. And I'm sorry for him for — he did the right thing and got hammered for it. But we need more Republican legislators to step out there and be on the side of the majority of the American people.

    It takes political courage to do that. And I respect the fact that the Republican Party and gun rights groups are way over here. But how do we break the cycle? How do those majority of NRA members who are with the majority of the American people, who want some sort of gun safety regulations, how do we get the laws to reflect them?

  • William Brangham:

    So…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    I have a theory. I have a theory.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    OK, good.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    So, another case, in additional to guy you interviewed, Chris Jacobs, first-term member of Congress from the Buffalo area, was — said, I'm — was shocked by the events, said, I — and he was a big — he was supported by the NRA.

    He said: No, we need to — we need to ban assault weapons. We need to do that.

    So he lasted a week. And now he's not running for reelection, because every Republican in his district basically said, you're…

  • William Brangham:

    That happened today.

  • David Brooks:

    That happened today.

    And so my theory is, what's happened is, a lot of gun owners — and we have ample evidence of this — do support a lot of these things we're talking about. But the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, has become not just a political party that passes legislation. It's become a cultural tribe.

    And tribes are held together by loyalty. And tribes are held together by taboos. And it has now become a taboo in the Republican Party, having nothing to do with the substance of guns. It's just a marker. If you're a member of our tribe, if you belong to us, you do not do anything on guns. You also believe the election was stolen.

    And these are tribal markers. And I have trouble seeing us breaking that tribal mentality, which demands uniformity, unless our overall politics becomes less polarized. And how that is going to happen, well, we have been struggling with that for a few decades.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, I want to ask you about something that we heard Amna Nawaz talking about with Elizabeth Williamson Elizabeth Williamson earlier.

    And it's something I haven't been able to get out of my mind, which is the parents in Uvalde having to be swabbed for their DNA because the children were unrecognizable in those classrooms because of the weapon that was used against them.

    And it has led some people to say, to shock the country's conscience into action, we ought to consider showing people what these weapons do more graphically.

    What do you think about that proposal?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    So, like you, when I saw the news, it just broke my heart.

    Imagine, you're going to this place where you are fearing the worst, that your child is dead, and you're going to go identify the body. And then a person comes to you and says, we need to swab your cheek because that's the only way we're going to be able to identify your child.

    I don't have children, and it just tore me to pieces. Please excuse me for that turn of phrase there.

    I go back, and I think I side with former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who wrote an op-ed where he said, you know what, we need to see. We need to see the bodies. We need to see this, for the very reason you were just talking about, in order to shock the country, not in a prurient way, but in a way that says, we must do something here.

    And I go back to Mamie Till. Her son Emmett Till was lynched, totally disfigured in Mississippi. And she decided, you know what? The world, the nation needs to see what they did to my child. And she — when she did that, as shocking as it was, it advanced the cause of civil rights in this country.

    I would not want to be a parent that would have to decide whether that's a choice I would want to make. But if a child were — I'm sorry — if a parent were to do that, were to have the courage to — and the heroism to say, I want the nation, I want the world to see what an AR-15 did to my child, I would support that parent 1000 percent.

    So, I'm just rendered — I'm rendered speechless by just even having to talk about this. But I don't know what else — what else can be done to just get any kind of action to protect — to protect families.

  • William Brangham:

    David, I'm sorry. I would love to hear your take on this. We don't have time tonight.

    David…

  • David Brooks:

    I agree with Elizabeth.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    David and Jonathan, always good to see you both.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, William.

  • William Brangham:

    Thank you.

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