If anyone in Congress has a strong incentive to be cautious, it’s Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). He’s arguably the most vulnerable 2016 incumbent – polls in Wisconsin show Johnson trailing former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in next year’s rematch – and as regular readers know, the Republican hasn’t done much to help his case lately.
After all, this is the same GOP senator who recently got caught up in an odd fight over the “Lego Movie”; his ridiculous anti-Obamacare lawsuit was laughed out of court; and his defense for signing onto a letter intended to sabotage American foreign policy wasn’t especially coherent.
Johnson also referred during a recent radio interview to “idiot inner-city kids,” though he later said he was being sarcastic.
But if the Wisconsin Republican is scaling back his rhetoric to reflect his odds, he has a funny way of showing it. The Huffington Post reported the other day:
Guns don’t kill people – media coverage of mass shootings kills people. That’s according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who on Friday cited a common argument against journalists printing the names and other identifying details of shooters.“Why do we have what we consider copycats of tragedies? Well, a lot of it is because this is plastered all over the news and these mentally ill, these sick people see it,” Johnson said in an interview on WRDN, a Wisconsin radio station. “They want to go out in a blaze of glory. They want to achieve fame.”
It’s important to note that Johnson wasn’t calling for restrictions on a free press. On the contrary, the senator made the opposite case – Johnson said policymakers could not “allow” news organizations to cover mass-shootings, but that would be, as he described it, “an incredible infringement on free-speech rights.”
But therein lies the rub. As Johnson sees it, news coverage of mass-shootings leads to more mass-shootings, but since we don’t want to infringe upon a free press, there’s effectively nothing policymakers can do to reduce gun deaths.
“I think that’s really a lot of the reason we haven’t acted, just done something – is because when you really come up and ask those hard questions, you go, ‘Yeah, well, it might make us feel good to pass this solution, but it’s not going to solve the problem,’” Johnson argued. “And it does infringe upon our constitutional rights.”
There are two main problems with the argument. The first is that there’s very little evidence, if any, to suggest the perpetrators of mass-shootings are driven by media. In the wake of a tragedy, blaming news organizations may make some feel better, but that doesn’t make it true.
The second concern is that Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, seems to have effectively ruled out working on gun policy as a possible solution. It’s true that Congress can’t stop news organizations from reporting the news, but Congress can take steps to limit Americans’ access to deadly weapons.
Johnson apparently sees such steps as unconstitutional, but Justice Antonin Scalia – not exactly a moderate on the Supreme Court – seems to disagree. Remember, Scalia has endorsed “longstanding prohibitions” on firearm ownership from felons and the mentally ill, restrictions on guns in government buildings, limits on the commercial sale of guns, and bans on “dangerous and unusual weapons,” including “M-16 rifles and the like.”
If the debate devolves to “restrict news organizations or do nothing,” elected officials are willfully ignoring an entire other area of public policy. Johnson ought to know better.