Paul Ryan, the shameless political careerist who has surrendered the U.S. House of Representatives to campaign donors and lobbyists, has a well-documented history of doing everything in his power to prevent meaningful debate about gun violence. But it’s getting harder for the speaker of the House to game the system on behalf of his benefactors.
Ryan knows that his traditional “thoughts and prayers” response to mass shootings does not work any longer. People are on to the fact that his pious pronouncements in the aftermath of massacres are never followed up by sufficient action to prevent future massacres.
But Ryan, who as a top Republican fundraiser is well aware that the National Rifle Association PAC now devotes roughly 99 percent of its campaign spending to the election of his partisan allies, is still doing what he can to mangle discussions about the role that guns play in shooting sprees.
Ryan will go only so far as the NRA allows, which, at this point, is toward a constrained discussion of regulating “bump stock” devices, which modify rifles so that they can fire bullets as rapidly as machine guns. Beyond that tangential response, the speaker is determined to change the topic.
Consider Ryan's response to the gunshots that killed at least 58 people and injured about 500 others in Las Vegas.
“It’s important that as we see the dust settle and we see what was behind some of these tragedies, that mental health reform is a critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things from happening in the past,” declared the speaker, who may have meant “in the future.”
Ryan was talking about “mental health reform” in order to avoid talking about guns.
That’s problematic on a number of levels.
For one thing, as the Department of Health and Human Services reminds us, “Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3 percent–5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”
But even if Ryan believes that mental health care is key to ending gun violence, he goes out of his way to obstruct serious discussion of the issue. After bringing up the topic at his weekly press conference on Oct. 3, the speaker did his best to avoid questions about whether it was “a mistake to make it easier for mentally ill people to get a gun.” (CBS News reported that, after he was pressed to give an answer, “Ryan insisted that people’s rights were being ‘infringed’ and protecting their rights was ‘very important.’”)
The most unsettling thing about Ryan’s consistently dishonest responses to the issues that Congress should be addressing — from gun violence, to access to health care, to tax reform, to matters of war and peace — is that many in the media still treat the speaker as a credible commentator rather than a crudely manipulative politician.
This is what makes the challenges to Ryan’s duplicity that have been posed by Congressman Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., so necessary.
Kennedy, the grandson of a presidential contender who was murdered by a gun-wielding assassin and the great-nephew of a president who was felled by bullets from another assassin, understands more about gun violence than most members of Congress. To Kennedy's credit, he maintains a faith that it might still be possible to convince colleagues to put aside partisanship and ideology in the pursuit of public safety and human decency. His remarks in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre were among the most poignant and powerful statements in the outpouring of grief and frustration from congressional Democrats.
“Ending gun violence isn’t political. This is personal,” Kennedy explained on the floor of the House. “So we are not powerless. We are not helpless. We are not hostages to some political organization. We are not bystanders — as bullets tear through concerts and prayer circles and elementary school classrooms and nightclubs and military compounds and quiet neighborhoods. This is up to us — to every single American. This is our country and our home and our families. We can decide that one person’s right to bear arms does not come at the expense of a neighbor’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
That was a truth that needed to be spoken.
But the congressman from Massachusetts did not stop there. He also spoke truth to the speaker of the House.
Kennedy posted Ryan's remarks on mental health reform on Twitter, adding a simple admonition: “All due respect Mr. Speaker, you and your party celebrated taking mental health care from millions just months ago at the White House.”
This is not the first time Kennedy has challenged Ryan’s claims regarding Republican support for mental health initiatives.
“With deeply misplaced pride, President Trump and a Republican Congress immediately responded to our nation’s ongoing mental health crisis and opioid epidemic by shamelessly celebrating the passage of the single largest attack on behavioral health care in recent history,” said Kennedy after Ryan and Trump gathered at the White House to celebrate the passage in the House of Representatives of draconian legislation to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act.
Speaker Ryan, the most powerful Republican in Congress, needs to be held to account when he practices to deceive on issues so consequential as gun violence and health care.
Congressman Kennedy has made it his business to fact check the speaker, to expose the Janesville Republican’s intellectual dishonesty, and to challenge the dereliction of duty that is the distinguishing mark of Paul Ryan’s political career.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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