Gun nuts' sick tradeoff: Why Jeb Bush's "stuff happens" remark was so revealing

Is one person's assault weapon worth another's life? Yes, Bush and others suggest

Published October 6, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Locher)
(AP/John Locher)

Last Friday, right when most of the political press was trying to figure out when to start drinking so as to be precisely drunk enough to find Hillary Clinton’s “Saturday Night Live” appearance funny, Jeb Bush said something stupid. Asked whether mass shootings, like the one that devastated a community college in Oregon the day before, could be averted through prayer vigils, Bush said:

We're in a difficult time in our country and I don't think that more government is necessarily the answer to this. I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It's just, it's very sad to see. But I resist the notion — and I did, I had this, this challenge as governor, because we have — look, stuff happens. There's always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something, and it's not necessarily the right thing to do.

As soon as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported Bush’s “stuff happens” comment, Twitter blew up. But although the Internet is generally in a state of perpetual overreaction, this felt like one of the rare occasions when the histrionics were deserved. For nearly the 300th time just this year, someone in America had used a gun to kill or maim at least four other people. And Bush, a man with a decent shot of becoming president, did little more than shake his head, sigh, and say, “Guns, boy, I don’t know.”

To my surprise, though, not everyone agreed that Bush’s response was egregious — and I’m not just talking about Republicans. “The news media immediately initiated its gaffe sequence,” snarked New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait. But because Bush uttered “stuff happens” in the midst of an awkward transition from gun massacres to “public problems in general,” Chait argued, labeling “stuff happens” as a gaffe or screw-up was unfair. The idea that “events occur and the proper response is nothing,” he continued, “is not always wrong,” even if gun-safety supporters (including Chait) think applying it to the mass-shooting context is “terribly wrong.”

Chait’s argument, in essence, was that “denying any public policy response to endemic gun violence is a completely standard position in the GOP.” So, really, the only newsworthy aspect of Bush’s remark was “the callousness of the wording.” The content itself was ho-hum. That was certainly the way Bush felt: When a reporter asked him if he regretted the phrasing, he bristled, demanding the reporter “explain to [him] what [he] said wrong.” Then, with the snippiness that has come to increasingly color his interactions with the press, Bush added, “Things happen all the time. ‘Things’ — is that better?”

More striking than Chait’s argument, however, was the fact that the New Republic’s Brian Beutler — who is far more familiar with the reality of gun violence than anyone should be, and who lacks Chait’s mannered iconoclasm — agreed with it. “Let’s stipulate that Jeb Bush is tin-eared,” Beutler wrote. “Even so, his comments clearly imply that we should interpret the term ‘stuff’ as a shorthand for tragedies and other crises.” Stripping “stuff happens” of its context, Beutler argued, “makes it seem like Bush shrugged off a mass killing as something akin to stepping in a dog pile.”

I thought this was a surprising response not because I disagreed with it, but rather because the interpretation both Beutler and Chait seem to be pushing against — the idea that Bush’s response to murder is “meh” — did not occur to me. I did not consider that someone could simultaneously be interested enough in politics to be keeping abreast of Jeb Bush in 2015 yet ignorant enough to think that a presidential candidate would do something so politically stupid. I thought that such a tactless, graceless and ham-handed presentation of GOP orthodoxy on guns was scandalous enough.

And what is that position exactly? As Beutler pithily puts it, the GOP believes “that guns are great and that mass killings are the price of freedom.” And, moreover, the GOP believes that “freedom” is only “freedom” if the NRA says so. Granted, people who immerse themselves in American politics, and the politics of gun safety, know this already. But most people don’t immerse themselves in American politics, much less one of its many niches. Further still, a gaffe of the kind Bush may have made — or the kind that Mitt Romney made — is only significant to the extent that it permeates the consciousness of those beyond the politics-obsessed bubble.

So when Beutler argued, as he did on Twitter, that “[e]veryone knows Republicans don’t think gun violence justifies regulation,” I think he slightly misses the mark. Ditto when Chait shrugs and says Bush did nothing new. Yes, it’s true that many politically engaged Americans have figured out that there is no amount of other people’s blood that the NRA won’t spill in order to maintain its extremist position; and yes, many politically engaged Americans have figured out that the GOP is the supplicant in its relationship with the gun lobby.

But even those folks have rarely heard a Republican describe the trade-off — one person’s life for another person’s semi-automatic — as bluntly and simply as Bush did on Friday. (Frank Luntz, after all, is rich for a reason.) If “stuff happens” causes more Americans to take a second look at what the GOP position on gun safety actually is, rather than what the GOP claims it is, that will be important. To paraphrase George Orwell, sometimes the hardest thing to see is staring you in the face.

Jeb Bush Stands by 'Stuff Happens' Comment

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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