In the span of just over a month, four mass shootings — in Gilroy, California; Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, and Odessa, Texas — have provoked varying words of comfort, condemnation and promised action from President Trump.
After the Gilroy shooting, he offered, "While families were spending time together at a local festival, a wicked murderer opened fire and killed three innocent citizens, including a young child." After El Paso and Dayton, he promised to consider meaningful background checks, insisting, "There's a big package of things that's going to be put before (Congress), by a lot of different people."
Since then, he's hedged on exactly what new legislation he'll consider, and said on Sunday that the Odessa shooting "really hasn't changed anything." He again lowered expectations for the expanded background checks he'd earlier touted, telling reporters, "For the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it."
When Congress returns to session next week, we'll see if the four mass shootings in a little more than a month were enough to cajole lawmakers and the White House to some meaningful new solutions, or if politics will continue to prevail.
There's little reason for optimism. Despite insistences from Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy that Trump is open to expanding background checks, the president's behavior and words over the past weeks have shown just how uninterested he actually is in using his bully pulpit to pressure Congress to do anything, instead remaining breathtakingly vague and non-committal.
In other words, he's content to follow on the issue rather than lead.
There is one area, however, in which he's apparently comfortable taking a stand. According to a new report in Bloomberg, his administration is directing the Justice Department to draft legislation that would expedite the death penalty for convicted mass shooters.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this follows its July directive to reinstate the federal death penalty after a 16-year hiatus. In a DOJ statement from Attorney General Bill Barr, he rationalized renewing the practice by saying, "we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."
If you were hoping for a big and bold (or even a discrete and relatively uncontroversial) idea to curtail mass shootings, this isn't it.
It's not going to deter future shooters, the vast majority of whom, it's reasonably safe to say, don't think out the pros and cons of shooting up innocent people at a school, shopping mall, movie theater or concert. These aren't rational actors who are weighing the consequences of their actions. In fact, for many, their own stated assumption or desire is typically that they'll die during the massacre, either by police fire or suicide.
Nor is the directive actually tough on crime. How do we know? Because decades of studies and hundreds of criminologists and law enforcement officials have attested to the fact that capital punishment is not a deterrent at all, for any kind of criminal.
"Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won't commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole," as former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge H. Lee Sarokin famously said in 2011.
But for the Trump administration, this sort of look-tough approach to any problem is de rigueur.
Take immigration. No honest person would agree that rounding up a couple dozen illegal immigrants in well-publicized "raids" actually changed anything. But why solve a broken immigration system when you can merely appear to be tough on it? The Wall is the embodiment of the look-tough non-solution.
Meantime, Trump talks tough on foreign policy, promising North Korea "fire and fury," goading China into a dangerous trade war, threatening Iran with nukes — but none of the problems in those theaters are actually solved by his bellicosity.
The draw of Trump for so many voters was that he was a "problem solver." To the contrary, he is a problem avoider and in many cases a problem exacerbator. He's far more interested in looking strong than in fixing things.