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After another school shooting, nihilism begins to set in

Students embraced in front of a makeshift memorial for victims near the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Following yet another devastating school shooting, let’s take a moment to consider how the public discussion from leaders has altered in recent years — without many of us even noticing.

Where before there was shock, sadness, and outrage, there was also a sort of political dance. Those politicians who were aligned with or beholden to the gun lobby would offer thoughts and prayers. Some would argue more needed to be done for mental health; others would say school security and the “hardening” of facilities was key. Advocates for gun control would call for the passage of one bill or another in hopes of preventing another mass shooting.


Whichever side they were on, most every politician wanted to give a statement on television. And even if there was heated debate about the best way to prevent the next tragedy (and there always was), at least people were talking about what was happening.

But that hasn’t happened lately.

Now, a sort of nihilism has set in. Underlying this new phase is a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders. Maybe more armed school police officers won’t fix it. Maybe an assault weapons ban wouldn’t fix it. “What can you do?” has seemingly become the mindset after what CNN reported was the 16th mass shooting at an American school this academic year.

After the shooting on Monday, in which the assailant killed three children and three adults at a Nashville private Christian school, home state Representative Tom Burchett, a Republican, said on the steps of Capitol Hill: “It’s a horrible, horrible situation. We are not going to fix it. Criminals are going to be criminals.”

Even President Biden, who in 1994 led efforts to pass the now-expired assault weapons ban and has signed a number of executive orders on guns, sounded like a person who doesn’t believe any further action is coming from a divided Congress.


“I can’t do anything except plead with Congress to act,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.

Which is, of course, logistically true.

But let’s not forget that Congress can and did act last year. A month after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Congress passed a bill that expanded gun background checks for those ages 18 to 21 and allowed for states to beef up the use of Red Flag Laws that would allow local law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals viewed as an imminent dangers to themselves or others. It was called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

Yes, this law was heavily watered down from what some wanted, but it was also bipartisan. It could have opened the door for more reform down the line, wherever Congress wanted to take it, either adding more support for mental health or school security or banning certain weapons.

But following the 2022 midterm elections, which saw Republicans take over the US House, there has been no real appetite for Congress to act. This is despite the fact that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for American children.

In fact, the one thing that Congress did do in the wake of the Nashville shooting was this: The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Republican Jim Jordon of Ohio, decided to delay a hearing scheduled Tuesday that would have rolled back one of Biden’s executive orders involving the regulation of gun manufacturing.


This new sense of paralysis is also on the mind of US Senate Chaplin Barry Black, who opened Tuesday’s session with the prayer: “When babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers. Remind our lawmakers of the words of the British statesman Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’ ”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.