The five stages of Republican candidate reactions after mass shootings

America has roughly one mass shooting every day, and the prospective candidates for president have a clear set of acceptable ways to handle them

Mass shooting events in America happen at an alarming rate, with roughly one every day. When an attack hits the headlines, like the recent shootings in San Bernardino, California, and Colorado Springs, the prospective Republican candidates for president have a clear playbook.

Stage 1: Silence.

First off, advisers will be telling their candidate: don’t say anything. After all, the initial reports of any mass shooting are likely to be confused and are often inaccurate.

Sometimes these events gain wider traction; often they will sink without a trace. Obviously, in the first instance it would be irresponsible to comment on what might be an ongoing situation.

Republican candidates did not exactly remain silent following the San Bernardino shooting. On Thursday, Texas senator Ted Cruz linked the shootings to the recent Paris attacks, telling donors and activists at the Republican Jewish Coalition that he was concerned the events in San Bernardino were related to terrorism and that the US was currently in a time of war.

“At this point, the details of what happened in San Bernardino are still unclear,” Cruz said, referring to the shooting on Wednesday that left at least 14 people dead. “But our prayers are with the families of those who were murdered and those who were shot. And all of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism here at home. Coming on the wake of a terror attack in Paris, this horrific murder underscores that we are in a time of war.”

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson called the shooting a “hate crime” on Wednesday.

Commenting responsibly was doubly true in the Colorado Springs case, which is freighted with problems for the Republican candidates.

The attacker reportedly said “no more baby parts” to law enforcement when he was being taken into custody. He was apparently referring to widely discredited videos made by an anti-abortion group which purported to show a Planned Parenthood clinic selling foetus parts – a reference which candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina baldly lied about. Other candidates, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, had also previously condemned Planned Parenthood over the videos.

So it wasn’t until the following day that any of the candidates addressed the issue at all, and not until Sunday – when they could no longer avoid the questions put to them on the morning TV show circuit – that they really talked about the attack.

Stage 2: Prayer

After a tragedy has been confirmed, candidates often respond by offering prayers and sympathies. The facts of the shooting and the identity of the suspect may still be murky but the candidates have the ability to at least show their awareness of the tragedy without weighing in.

After the San Bernardino shooting, almost all Republican candidates offered sentiments of “thoughts and prayers”, easily filing into a pattern that has emerged after mass shootings.

My thoughts and prayers are with the shooting victims and their families in San Bernardino.

— Dr. Ben Carson (@RealBenCarson) December 2, 2015

Praying for the victims, their families & the San Bernardino first responders in the wake of this tragic shooting.

— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) December 2, 2015

After Colorado Springs, it was Texas senator Ted Cruz who was the first to offer his sentiments:

Praying for the loved ones of those killed, those injured & first responders who bravely got the situation under control in Colorado Springs

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) November 28, 2015

Bush put out a statement on Sunday saying there was “no acceptable explanation for this violence, and I will continue to pray for those who have been impacted”, while Ohio governor John Kasich tweeted that “senseless violence has brought tragedy to Colorado Springs. I pray for the families in mourning and have hope our nation can heal”.

The neat rhetorical flourish visible in all these early missives is a sense that the candidates denounce the attack while also removing all sense of human agency. “Senseless.” “No acceptable explanation.”

The only notable exception to this was Huckabee, who called the attack an act of “domestic terrorism” on CNN on Sunday, though he managed to also equate the shooting with abortion itself: “There’s no excuse for killing other people, whether it’s happening inside the Planned Parenthood headquarters, inside their clinics where many millions of babies die, or whether it’s people attacking Planned Parenthood.”

Stage 3: ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’

This line of reasoning is so common as to be entirely cliche at this point. In October, then candidate and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal placed the blame for the shootings on the “serious cultural decay in our society”. In a rambling note posted on his website, he pointed the finger at pop culture; violent video games; and TV shows and music that “promote evil”.

Kasich, in a speech to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, after the shooting at Umpqua community college in Oregon in October, said, “I don’t think gun control would solve this problem … the deeper issue is alienation. The deeper issue is loneliness.”

Special mention goes to former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who is reportedly still running for the Republican nomination. After the horrific on-air shooting of two journalists in Roanoke, Virginia, in August, Gilmore said that “every shooting tragedy, whether it is in Virginia, Massachusetts or Colorado, has one thing in common: they were all perpetrated by people.” Rubio echoed these comments, saying: “It’s not the guns, it’s the people who are committing these crimes.”

Donald Trump speaks during the 2016 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, DC on Thursday.
Donald Trump speaks during the 2016 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington DC on Thursday. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Stage 4: Shift the focus to mental health

If Republicans sense that there is a danger the conversation might shift to uncomfortable territory, such as the link between firearm proliferation and increasing gun violence, they will shift agency from God to madness.

After Roanoke, Trump told CNN that the attack “isn’t a gun problem, this is a mental problem”. He continued: “In the old days, they had mental institutions for people like this, because he was really, definitely borderline and definitely would have been and should have been institutionalized.”

This tactic has already been heavily documented, and the Colorado Springs attack was no different. Huckabee, on CNN, said that the shooter had been a “very unstable person”. Florida senator Marco Rubio told New Hampshire radio station WKXL that America needed “to be more serious about how we address mental health.” (He also blamed “societal breakdown”.)

Stage 5: Integrate the attack into the campaign

This is the final stage, usually a few days after the attack, when the tragedy can be safely integrated into the more everyday message of the campaign.

Trump moved quickly after the San Bernardino shootings, although it was mostly via Twitter. On Thursday, he retweeted a supporter who appeared to suggest that mass shootings help Trump’s poll numbers.

"@DLake66675: @ChateauEmissary @trumpettes16 @realDonaldTrump his poll numbers jump every time instances like this occur.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2015

Especially common is the “if only the victims had been carrying guns” argument, as epitomised by Trump after the Chattanooga shooting in July, in which four US marines were killed:

Get rid of gun free zones. The four great marines who were just shot never had a chance. They were highly trained but helpless without guns.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2015

In the case of Colorado Springs, Fiorina felt comfortable hitting out at the left for “demonising the messenger” in blaming anti-abortion campaigners.

The waters are somewhat muddied by the anti-abortion campaign in the case of Colorado Springs. But usually, this is also the stage at which candidates will condemn anyone who dares to mention that a national conversation about gun control is desperately needed.

After the massacre in June at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, former Texas governor and then candidate Rick Perry spoke out against what he called a “knee-jerk” reaction from President Obama. “This is the MO of this administration, anytime there is an accident like this,” Perry said. “The president is clear: he doesn’t like Americans’ guns … he uses every opportunity to parrot that message.”

And who could forget Carson’s quote after Umpqua that he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away”?


Nicky Woolf

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Candidates' NRA ratings: a telling reflection of reactions to San Bernardino shooting
Mostly higher-rated Republicans offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ and little else while low-rated Democrats are the only ones to call for action on gun control

Ellen Brait

03, Dec, 2015 @9:49 PM

Article image
Republicans cautious on Confederate flag that 'clearly divides people'
Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and others say authority over flag’s fate lies with the states – not Washington – in order to avoid giving their own opinion

Jon Swaine in New York

21, Jun, 2015 @8:07 PM

Article image
Surprise: 2016 hopefuls' response to the Virginia shooting was totally predictable
Republicans generally refused to offer up any solutions to address gun control and mental health reforms while Democrats insisted on stronger laws

Ellen Brait in New York and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

27, Aug, 2015 @9:51 PM

Article image
Republican debate in South Carolina: 11 moments you might have missed
Figurative fists were flying with Trump v Cruz and Rubio v Christie duels, unanimous attacks on Obama and Clinton and a bevy of hot-button issues

Tom McCarthy

15, Jan, 2016 @5:50 AM

Article image
Republican debate reveals attack lines against Hillary Clinton
The Democratic candidate for president was mentioned 25 times, accused of incompetence and the downgrading of America

Nicky Woolf

11, Nov, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Third Republican debate: nine things we learned
Marco Rubio turns in an impressive performance, Ted Cruz’s attacks on the media win applause, and Chris Christie rails against talk of fantasy football

Tom McCarthy in New York

29, Oct, 2015 @3:52 AM

Article image
Republican debate: all the candidates' promises, from flat taxes to firings
Whether calling for the creation of no-fly zones or pledging not to push grannies off cliffs, the Republican presidential contenders had a lot to offer

Nicky Woolf in New York

11, Nov, 2015 @6:40 PM

Article image
Carson and Trump out of limelight as Republican debates turn tough
Establishment politicians like Rand Paul and Jeb Bush snatch back control from ‘outsider’ candidates during substantive, volatile fourth TV encounter

Ed Pilkington and Ben Jacobs in Milwaukee

11, Nov, 2015 @7:10 AM

Article image
Ted Cruz takes clear lead over Donald Trump in Iowa Republican poll
Texas senator wins support of 31% of likely Republican caucus-goers while Trump is at 21% in poll considered state’s gold standard

Ben Jacobs in Washington

12, Dec, 2015 @11:33 PM

Article image
Republican hopefuls jostle for limelight in TV debate as Trump's shadow looms
Businessman carries double-digit lead into Fox News event in Ohio, where he will be front and center – while his rivals just hope to be noticed

Paul Lewis in Washington

06, Aug, 2015 @10:00 AM