All politics is performative, but few issues dial the theatrics up to the level of parody quite like the Second Amendment.
In just the last few months, Ted Cruz cooked bacon on the barrel of a machine gun. (“In Texas, we cook bacon a little differently than most folks.”) Rand Paul has fired an AR-15 at the U.S. tax code. Donald Trump has declared, "I love the NRA. I love the Second Amendment. You have to know that," and posed with a long rifle about the size of Tom Cruise.
Welcome to the truly bizarre optics of the 2016 race to be Gun Owner in Chief. A battle of images in which candidates try to communicate their Second Amendment absolutism, even as it puts them wildly out of step with most of the public—including gun owners.
Looking through the Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook posts from each of the GOP contenders (Jim Webb, may his campaign rest in peace, appears to be the only Democrat running to pose with a firearm this election cycle), the pictures pulled by Fusion's Political Image Machine—which collects and tags the tens of thousands of photos the candidates are posting to social media—range from sentimental to cartoonish.
But this is about more than pictures of, say, Mike Huckabee wearing a bucket hat and gripping dead mallards by the throat.
Or Lindsey Graham—blue polo unrumpled, hair neatly combed—firing an M4.
Those images, the Instagram-era equivalent of stories about Teddy Roosevelt on safari, are just the visual language of a policy agenda that the Republican presidential field backs with near-unanimity. And these candidates' opposition to universal background checks and legislation to close glaring loopholes in existing law has proved to be impervious to statistics on gun violence, public polling, or a growing list of tragedies.
In response to the shooting last month that killed nine people at a community college in Oregon, Ben Carson wrote on Facebook:
As a doctor, I spent many a night pulling bullets out of bodies. There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking–but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.
No matter how they phrased it, the consensus among Republican candidates was that there would no new gun laws in response to yet another mass shooting. And that view puts the Republican field in the minority, even among gun owners.
Probably because the data have become impossible to ignore. The U.S. leads the world in mass shootings. Women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other similarly wealthy nations, and, according to the FBI's most recent data on crime statistics, 55% of women killed by their intimate partners were killed with guns.
As news of this kind of violence becomes routine, the public—including a strong majority of gun owners—has reached a strong consensus on gun safety reforms like universal background checks. As I've written before, our gun laws would look very, very different if a majority of the public made policy instead of a deadlocked Congress.
And it's this consensus that the images obscure.
Bobby Jindal posts pictures from a day hunting with his son, something he would still be free to do if Congress closed the "boyfriend loophole," a gap in existing law that allows certain people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses to own and keep guns.
Lindsey Graham shares a photo from a leisurely afternoon shooting at doves, which he would also be free to do if there were universal background checks in place.
And Ted Cruz invites his Twitter followers to hunt with him, an activity that, again, the public consensus on gun reform would have no impact on, unless one of these hunting companions couldn't pass a background check.
They are pictures that disguise a platform that allows a person to walk out of a gun show with a deadly weapon in hand despite never undergoing a background check. Proposals to allow guns on college campuses and in schools. A set of federal policies that remain untouched even as mass shootings become increasingly familiar and agonizingly predictable.
And the reality is that we don't have to ask what those images might look like. We already know.