In the wake of mass shootings in America, Republicans and Democrats migrate to their respective marks as though urged on by a stage director. They read from their respective scripts, Democrats amping up their calls for gun control and Republicans stressing the need for more effective mental health care.
Friday’s mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, in which a teenager murdered 10 people at Santa Fe High School, appeared to represent a break in that script. Conservative pundits and lawmakers alike have floated several different reasons behind the shooting, from trench coats to the school’s excess of doors to ADHD medication. The array of diagnoses suggests a couple of things: one, that Republicans remain steadfastly unwilling to consider the merits of gun control, even as the number of mass shootings steadily climbs; and two, that as many Americans demand a more immediate response to gun violence from Washington, Republicans feel pressured to reach for new causes, however incongruous they may seem.
“It speaks to the utter corruption of the party intellectually and morally. To say that this is exclusively about the gun is as stupid as saying it has nothing to do with the gun,” Republican operative Steve Schmidt, who has been consistently critical of his party’s response to gun violence, told me. “Our politics have eradicated the ability to have a rational discussion about most things. Most things, though, are not lethal things. This is a lethal thing.”
At a press conference on Friday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas attributed the Santa Fe massacre to the high school having “too many entrances and too many exits.” He suggested it might be time for officials to “look at the design” of schools moving forward. “There are not enough people to put a guard in every entrance or exit,” he argued. “Maybe we need to look at limiting the entrances and exits into our schools so that we can have law enforcement looking at the people who are coming.”
Democrats were quick to condemn Patrick’s remarks. “Blame the doors?” tweeted California representative Eric Swalwell. “Anything but the weapon. Got it. Enough Is Enough.” Another California official, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom—a staunch gun control advocate who is running for governor—issued a similar broadside on Twitter: “Updated @GOP talking point: guns don't kill people, doors kill people.” Their criticisms betrayed a certain fatigue: Patrick’s comments indicated that Republicans will, in fact, consider new solutions to gun violence—so long as they don’t actually deal with guns.
Two days later, newly-enshrined National Rifle Association president Oliver North offered another potential cause: Ritalin. In an interview with Fox News Sunday, North said with regard to mass shootings, “We’re trying like the dickens to treat the symptom without treating the disease.” He said that American youth are “steeped in a culture of violence,” and ADHD medication exacerbates that violent culture, he argued. “They’ve been drugged in most cases. Nearly all of these perpetrators are male … and they’ve come through a culture where violence is commonplace,” he said. “Many of these young boys have been on Ritalin since they were in kindergarten.”
Conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt suggested that teachers stay vigilant about identifying “the creepy people” in their schools. What’s Hewitt’s tell-tale sign for a “creepy” person? Trench coats. “To the teachers and administrators out there, the trench coat is kind of a giveaway,” Hewitt said on his popular talk-radio show on Monday. “You might just say, ‘No more trench coats.’ The creepy people, make a list, check it twice.”
And then there was Texas Senator John Cornyn, who tweeted a Wall Street Journal story about the killer—highlighting the father’s quote that his son was “a good boy” who had been “mistreated at school.” After a barrage of angry replies, Cornyn attempted to clarify the tweet: “Not sending a message, crediting claim, or excusing murder,” Cornyn wrote. “Just noting the fact he said it. That is what news does.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of these responses, taken together, is that they didn’t come from fringe figures. Cornyn is the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, for example, while Hewitt has long been one of the right’s most prolific commentators. Republicans dismayed with their party’s approach to the issue told me that, because of this, attempts to find common ground will become futile. “Simply put, the response to Santa Fe, like Parkland, has been defensive and tone deaf,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “Our arrogance and tribalism has drowned out the voices of the innocent to the point that it is easier to make excuses for the status quo than it is to protect our children.”
For Schmidt, the GOP’s response to Santa Fe has been “unbelievably absurd,” and contributes to his certainty that the cycle of mass shootings will repeat itself. “Until they change their absolute unwillingness to give any consideration to this national crisis,” he said, “this will only happen again and again.”