What do the gun violence debate and 2016 election have in common?

The news that a federal grand jury ...

Posted: Feb. 17, 2018 12:38 PM
Updated: Feb. 18, 2018 12:41 PM

The news that a federal grand jury has indicted 13 Russians over interference in the 2016 US election comes on the heels of what would seem to be a totally unrelated event -- the mass shooting in a Florida school. The indictments were over alleged meddling in the presidential election, but Russia's efforts to undermine US democracy may extend well beyond that. Russia appears to be stoking divisions on the acrimonious subject of gun violence, one where America's system of government appears to be failing.

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The indictment lays out in spine-chilling detail the extent to which the Kremlin mobilized to destabilize US democracy. A secretive, Russian technology company, the Internet Research Agency, sought to "sow discord in the US political system."

If the Kremlin finds discord in America useful, what could be more helpful than the fallout from gun violence?

If foreign adversaries killed even a small fraction of the victims of gun violence in America, the United States would shift into emergency mode. Select committees would convene, the president would vow to destroy whoever did it, and leaders of both parties would rush to action, doing whatever is necessary to prevent it from happening again.

Instead, after the mass shooting in Florida, America's leaders reverted to the same unproductive routine: Republicans offered condolences, downplaying the role of guns, and Democrats pleaded for action, while most Americans experienced the seething brew of sorrow, anger and exasperation at the paralysis.

Why does nothing happen?

America's nonresponse to the epidemic encapsulates all that is broken in US politics and government. That's because gun violence stands at the intersection of the most urgent problems threatening the functioning of American democracy and the cohesion of the country.

The gun violence crisis is the canary in the coal mine of the American political system, an ominous warning sign.

The vulnerabilities are so obvious that one of America's principal geopolitical adversaries, Russia, has found the issue a perfect target for its now-familiar tactics.

In the hours after the Florida shooting, bot and troll tracking sites detected a proliferation of activity in Russian-linked Twitter accounts working to add to the acrimony that always follows US shootings. That is in keeping with the Kremlin's well-documented efforts to intensify internal divisions in the United States and other democracies. But there may be more to Russia's involvement.

The FBI is reportedly investigating whether a Russian, with ties to the Kremlin, funneled money illegally to the National Rifle Association to give to the Trump campaign. The NRA spent an unprecedented $30 million to help Trump campaign -- through both pro-Trump and anti-Clinton efforts -- more than double what it spent to help Mitt Romney in 2012.

Sen. Ron Wyden has asked the Treasury Department and the NRA to provide details of possible Russian funneling money to Trump through the NRA. The NRA has denied any illegal ties with Russia.

The allegations center on Vladimir Putin friend Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and, curiously, a lifetime member of the NRA. Torshin, who has been linked to Russian security services and has been investigated by Spanish police over possible illegal activities in Spain, tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin, which was detailed in an email whose subject read "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite," according to The New York Times. Torshin has denied any wrongdoing in the Spanish case.

The topic of guns is ideal for Russian purposes because it is one where America is failing.

The irony is that we know how to fix the problem because other countries have done it. After several mass shootings, Australians demanded action and Parliament passed strict gun laws. No more mass shootings have occurred.

The answer is obvious. But glaring weaknesses in the US system have so far put them out of reach.

- The influence of money in the political process is one of the most transparent flaws in US democracy. Polls show many Americans want stricter gun laws, but elected officials, who need daunting amounts of money to win elections, grow beholden to their donors. The NRA has spent more than $200 million on political activities since 1998, including campaign contributions, lobbying and other political activities. The NRA spends for a purpose, and it gets results. At last year's NRA convention, President Donald Trump told the gun lobby, "You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you," promising, "I will never, ever let you down." Is it any surprise he didn't utter the word "guns" in his speech about the shooting? Trump was playing to his base and his patrons, wherever they are.

- The rise of partisanship has intensified all divisions and made compromise more difficult. Questions that should be viewed as practical, apolitical challenges are now viewed through the lens of political allegiance. Just as environmental matters have left the scientific arena to become political footballs, gun violence has moved from the realm of public safety to an us-versus-them competition. The search for solutions has taken a back seat to tribal point-scoring.

- The willingness of politicians to surrender their principles is not a new development, but it appears to be growing more acceptable. That's why the aftermath of the Florida shooting, like all the recent ones, became a carnival of hypocrisy. The NRA wants politicians to blame mental health after shootings. And that's what many have often done. Trump did it, even though he lifted restrictions on gun ownership for the mentally ill. House Speaker Paul Ryan talked about mental health, and numerous politicians talked about the need to secure schools. But that misses the point and they know it.

America isn't unique in that some of its citizens suffer from mental illnesses. But America has more guns per capita than any country on Earth. That's why the death toll by gun homicides equates to 27 people shot dead in the United States every day, making the gun homicide rate here more than 25 times higher than that of other high-income countries.

When Sen. Marco Rubio, who has received more than $3 million from the NRA, disingenuously claims that gun laws would not have prevented the shooting in his own state, he is playing a game we once heard from the cigarette makers, who tried to defend their business by denying the carcinogenic nature of cigarettes. The reality is: You're more likely to die prematurely if you smoke, just as you're more likely to be killed if you live in a country awash in guns that are easily obtained.

And, yes, there's a problem with school safety. And nightclub safety. And church safety. And movie theater safety. The problem, as anyone who looks at it with clear eyes can see, is too many guns.

The United States is failing to stop a problem that has killed more Americans than all the wars in US history because money now trumps principles. Because partisanship overwhelms common sense. America's adversaries have found these weaknesses and are using it against the United States. The gun problem is a warning. If the country cannot solve this crisis, much worse lies ahead.

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