WASHINGTON — Next year, the country will spend one week in June commemorating the anniversaries of three different shootings.
On June 12, 2016, there was a massacre at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida. On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist opened fire at a historic black church in Charleston.
The most recent shooting, June 14, 2017, saw a zealous Bernie Sanders supporter targeting congressional Republicans at a park in Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles outside the District of Columbia, as they practiced for an upcoming charity baseball game against Democrats.
The two earlier episodes reignited elements of the gun debate and the relative ease of getting them. But the Alexandria shooting — which resulted in five injuries and put House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, in critical condition — is evoking a markedly different response.
“What motivated this, it’s not about guns,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat and most senior black lawmaker in Congress.
Clyburn spoke for Democrats and Republicans alike who have said the uptick in heated political rhetoric nationally is to blame for James T. Hodgkinson — now dead after a shootout with Capitol Police — to target congressional Republicans.
“To make this about guns, I’m not going to have a discussion about that, because I don’t think that has anything to do with this,” he said.
The same sentiment came from U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Mount Pleasant. He warned a few weeks ago that President Donald Trump’s outbursts on Twitter and on the 2016 campaign trail have helped create an environment where an incoming Republican congressman Greg Gianforte of Montana felt compelled to body slam a reporter for simply asking about the GOP health care bill.
Sanford echoed his position several times last week after the Alexandria shooting, becoming a fixture on cable TV and in media interviews.
“We ought to call each other out,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also took the conciliatory approach in a speech on the Senate floor hours after the shooting.
“We seem to have forgotten how to disagree without being disagreeable," Scott said. "Today’s shooting is one of the manifestations of that.“
Peace through baseball
Democrats and Republicans competed on the baseball field Thursday night in the annual bipartisan tradition, raising a record amount of money for charity and attracting record attendance. There were tributes to Scalise and the Capitol Police officers who saved lawmakers’ lives, and Republicans and Democrats made extra efforts to appear collegial.
But while it’s clear that gun policy won’t change as a result of the recent shooting, it’s far from certain that the unity will have any staying power, either — if history is any indication.
By many accounts, Washington's reaction following last week’s shooting mirrored what occurred in January 2011 when a mentally disturbed gunman opened fire on then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., and the attendees of a constituent event she was hosting in Tucson.
In the two years preceding the Giffords shooting, partisan sniping had reached an all-time high. With the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black president, Clyburn said he started receiving so many menacing emails, phone calls and letters he told his staff to stop bringing them to his attention.
Then came the drawn-out, vitriolic debate over the Affordable Care Act, which had lawmakers so incensed that U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a normally mild-mannered Republican from West Columbia, found himself screaming out "you lie" during a presidential address.
Then just days after the new, Republican-controlled House convened for the legislative session, Giffords was almost killed with a bullet to the head.
In the weeks that followed, there was some discussion about whether new gun laws were necessary to keep guns out of the hands of bad actors or perhaps to restrict what kinds of firearms the average person should be allowed to obtain. But instead of policy change, most members of Congress called out for unity and a retreat from the increasingly hostile political rhetoric that might have inspired Giffords’ shooter to take up arms against a politician.
And just like lawmakers came together for the congressional baseball game a day after the Alexandria shooting, members of Congress showed bipartisan spirit when Obama delivered his State of the Union speech. For the occasion, lawmakers broke with the tradition of party-segregated seating. Some members announced bipartisan “dates” to the speech, and everyone wore a ribbon pinned to their chests in solidarity with Giffords.
It didn't last.
Six-and-a-half years since the Giffords shooting, Clyburn said he is seeing a resurgence of dangerous, hateful rhetoric in the Trump era.
“We (had) a presidential candidate who (was) allowed to hide behind political correctness to say all kinds of things about people ... (and declare) 'Well I'm not politically correct,’” Clyburn said. “That is just stupid stuff.”
One lawmaker who speaks often about the stifling nature of political correctness is U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican from Laurens. He recently faced public backlash after posting an incendiary image on Facebook that suggested Islam was going to effectively kill Europe, and was bullish in his response.
“I’ve never been politically correct, nor do I care to be,” Duncan said.
But the events of last week might have had an effect on Duncan.
As a member of the Republican congressional baseball team who was leaving practice early the day of the shooting, he said Hodgkinson approached him to confirm whether Republicans or Democrats were out on the field prior to launching his attack. By the time he returned to Capitol Hill and realized what had happened, Duncan said he was “almost shaking.”
Later in the day, he mentioned the need for “personal reflections on everybody’s part, what they say and how they say it. ... I speak to myself on that.”
But despite aspirational statements, lawmakers didn’t offer concrete examples for how to change their own behavior, or behavior in others.
Scott told The Post and Courier last week he saw the problem in his colleagues, in constituents, in the media — but not in himself.
“I talk only about topics specifically, I rarely look at something to sensationalize and if I’m going to be gracious in my definitions, it’s typically toward bringing people together, not about divisions,” Scott said.
Sanford, after calling for more civility in public discourse, was confronted angrily from conservatives who interpreted his remarks as placing blame for the Alexandria attack squarely in the president's lap.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he contributes to civility by keeping the lines of communication open between himself and his constituents — even when that means allowing voters to scream at him back home, or in Graham's words, "blow off steam."
But Graham said one thing is for certain: Nothing is going to change in regards to guns.
"If we have that debate it will end like it always ends," he said. "You're not going to tell law abiding people they can't own a gun because of some nut job."