Prayer shaming: How should politicians respond to mass shootings?

Political responses to mass shootings in America have become formulaic, simplistic, and offer little middle ground. But the first step to progress may be a better understanding of the opposing views, say some observers.  

Mike Blake/Reuters
A police SWAT team searches a church during a manhunt after a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California December 2. Gunmen opened fire on a holiday party on Wednesday at a social services agency in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people and wounding 17 others before fleeing, authorities said.

By one count, the San Bernardino, Calif. shooting, in which 14 people were killed and at least 17 injured Wednesday in what was reportedly a holiday party for government employees, was the 355th mass shooting in the first 336 days of 2015.

The raft of shootings has exposed a deep rift in how politicians respond to mass gun violence – and a deep frustration from a public longing for reassurance, action, and cooperation.

The immediate aftermath of the tragedy left politicians resorting to largely formulaic responses, with Democrats calling for more gun control and Republicans offering their "thoughts and prayers."

"My thoughts and prayers are with the shooting victims and their families," Republican hopeful Ben Carson tweeted.

"My thoughts & prayers go out to those impacted by the shooting in San Bernardino, especially the first responders," rival John Kasich offered. Republican rivals Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham, and Rand Paul offered nearly identical sentiments. 

"I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now," Hillary Clinton tweeted. "Horrifying news out of #SanBernardino. Enough is enough: it's time to stand up to the @NRA and enact meaningful gun safety laws," declared Democratic rival Martin O'Malley.

Most responses only served to deepen the partisan divide, says Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

"There is a huge chasm between the parties and among the public. President Obama responds to any mass shooting, including yesterday, which has all the hallmarks of terrorism, with a call for more gun control ... Most Democrats follow in lockstep with his lead," said Professor Wilson, author of the book, “The Triumph of the Gun-Rights Argument: Why the Gun Control Debate Is Over."

"Republicans will almost certainly argue terrorism in the San Bernardino shooting; they argue mental health in most others ... There is not a lot of common ground, and when people see the causes and the solutions very differently, then gridlock is the outcome."

That contentiousness was reflected in a social media backlash as a wave of users chastised politicians' inaction on gun laws.

The hashtag #thoughtsandprayers began trending on Twitter as users called out Congress for failing to reform firearms laws.

"Prayers aren't working," chided the New York Daily News, engaging in what has been dubbed "prayer shaming."

The responses aren't a debate, but "a reaffirmation of entrenched points of view on either side," says Jonathan Rothermel, a professor of political science at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa.

"Nowhere is that discussion more evident than on social media where any suggestion of the need for changes in our gun laws is likely to be met by an avalanche of posts emphatically defending Second Amendment rights – or vice versa," says Professor Rothermel.

"Politicians on both sides pander to those ingrained views to strengthen their credentials on this issue, the effect of which is to discourage them from actually engaging in a meaningful dialogue that could potentially lead to more deliberative public policies."

By many counts, the two categories of reactions, policy-making and praying, have been portrayed as mutually exclusive solutions from two completely different world views. When politicians and the public are "inherently suspicious of each other’s motives, [that] blocks avenues for any type of accommodation towards a middle ground," adds Rothermel.

Respecting both types of responses may be the first step toward finding common ground on the issue.

"After a mass shooting, it is very, very difficult to know what to do. Shaming people for prayer is not productive," wrote Emma Green, managing editor of The Atlantic.

"Prayer and political action have a deeply entwined history in America. From civil rights to women’s suffrage, nearly every social-justice movement has had strong supporters from religious communities."

It was a sentiment echoed by liberal advocate and Pastor Daniel Shultz.

The solution to tragedies such as the San Bernardino shootings isn't clear or easy, says Wilson.

"This divide is much greater than the simplistic NRA v. Obama/Bloomberg rhetoric. People want simple solutions to simple problems. Mass shootings offer neither."

As such, promoting understanding, rather than animosity, he suggests, may be a first step forward.

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