After mass shooting, Democrats focus on guns, Republicans talk terrorism
On the presidential campaign trail, in the White House and on Twitter, it was as though politicians were responding to completely different events.
After the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, Democrats forcefully demanded a tightening of the country’s gun laws, laying blame on a culture that allows even people who are not permitted to board airplanes to buy guns with ease. Republicans talked of an entirely separate policy failure, drawing on news reports that the massacre may have been spurred by religious extremists to warn that the country is under attack and ill-equipped to deal with it.
The starkly disparate takeaways from the rampage showed the distance between the two parties on an issue that has become increasingly vital to Americans: their personal safety in the face of mass violence and terror. The rampage put presidential candidates in a quandary on a day when almost all of them were holding public events and found themselves under pressure to address the violence in California, even as the facts remained murky.
As more details about the attackers were made public through the day, GOP candidates — nearly all of whom spoke at a Washington forum hosted by the hawkish Republican Jewish Coalition — issued increasingly harsher attacks on what they said was the Obama administration’s unwillingness to come to terms with the true threat posed by Muslim extremists.
The “horrific murder underscores that we are at a time of war, whether or not the current administration realizes it,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, conceding that the causes were not yet fully clear.
Like others, he was adamant that the Obama administration has held back in the name of political correctness.
“We need a president who will call the enemy by its name: radical Islamic terrorism,” Cruz said. “There’s a power of speaking the truth.”
The White House avoids terms such as “Islamic extremism” and “Muslim terrorists” to keep from alienating the world’s billion or so Muslims, including the leaders of crucial allies in the Middle East.
Some Republicans avoided mentioning the bloodbath altogether. Ben Carson stuck to remarks that never touched on San Bernardino. Jeb Bush opened his hawkish speech with a moment of silence for the victims but never returned to the issue.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on the other hand, built much of his message to the influential Jewish group around the attack in California on Wednesday that killed 14.
“From the time I began to watch the events unfold last night, I [was] convinced that it was a terrorist attack,” he said. “The president continues to wring his hands and say, ‘We’ll see.’ … But those folks dressed in tactical gear with semiautomatic weapons came there to do something.”
He warned that the event should be a wake-up call, but for stepped-up national defense and intelligence. He, like others who spoke, made no mention of gun-control laws.
“If a center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino ... can be a target for a terrorist attack, then every place in America is a target for a terrorist attack,” Christie said. “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”
As the candidates attacked Obama at an auditorium a few blocks from the White House, the president called reporters to the Oval Office following his briefing from FBI Director James Comey. He emphasized the need to “get the facts” before making a judgment about the case.
“At this stage, we do not yet know why this terrible event occurred,” he said.
But, he added, “right now, it’s just too easy” for people who are determined to kill others to “get access to weapons.”
The combination of a mass shooting with the possibility that it was fueled by terrorism puts the U.S. political debate “on new ground,” said Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, a veteran of previous battles over gun control. He predicted that Americans will demand new answers from elected officials on how they approach public safety.
“There is a reset that may be going on with the American people,” he said. “That may entail re-looking at a whole series of issues, including guns.”
As the Obama administration desperately searched for executive actions that the president could take to close what it sees as dangerous and gaping loopholes in the nation’s gun laws, Hillary Clinton doubled down on her crusade for the same.
The outbreaks of mass shootings have been the backdrop for a crop of Democratic candidates who are, across the board, more stridently in favor of gun control than at any time in recent memory. The complex politics of gun ownership, in which Democrats at the top of the ticket had long been careful to avoid offending members of the powerful National Rifle Assn., have yielded to jarring statistics of gun violence and outrage over the inability to pass what Democrats argue are common-sense laws.
“We cannot go on with losing 90 people a day to gun violence,” Clinton wrote on Twitter. “We need to take action now.”
But Clinton’s message was complicated by the developments coming out of San Bernardino on Thursday. On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, she also said it was critical to lead the world in working to prevent “the kind of attacks we’ve been seeing.”
By focusing even in part on gun control, Clinton was left vulnerable to GOP attacks that she was downplaying the fight against terrorism.
“Hillary Clinton was tweeting about gun control while we learned radical Islamic terrorists have been building pipe bombs,” said Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard chief executive and GOP candidate.
But it was Donald Trump who ramped up the rhetoric further than all the others. As his remarks turned to San Bernardino, Trump said Obama’s refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” indicates that “there is something going on with him that we don’t know about.” The ominous comment echoed Trump’s history of questioning Obama’s birthplace and airing of false claims that the president practices Islam.
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli and David Lauter contributed to this report.
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