Six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination have seen their communities plunged into an all-too-familiar cycle of grief and raw emotion over a mass shooting since they declared their intention to run for office.
Democrats sought to serve as consolers-in-chief after gunmen opened fire during two fatal shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend that left a total of 29 people dead. In responding, presidential hopefuls provided impassioned condemnations of both the domestic attackers and President Trump, who, they said, set the tone at the national level for such horrific events.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native, called Trump a “white nationalist” after a mass shooting in his home city at a shopping center on Saturday that left 20 dead. Nine more people being killed in Dayton just hours later.
“Do you think President Trump is a white nationalist?” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked on “State of the Union.”
“Yes. I do,” O’Rourke said in response. “The things that he has said both as a candidate and then as the President of the United States, this cannot be open for debate.”
O’Rourke, who temporarily halted his campaign to return to Texas, “you don’t get mass shootings like these, you don’t torch mosques, or put kids in cages until you have a president who is giving people permission to do that and that is exactly what is happening in the United States of America today.”
He and his fellow Texan, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, as well as Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) are just the most recent candidates to face a mass shooting tragedy in their home state in just the past few months, joining contenders from Indiana, California, and Washington State in tending to their grieving communities.
In a Democratic Party that is increasingly facing criticism for infighting over policy differences, the chorus calling for stricter gun control is perhaps the clearest unifying force heading into the 2020 primary. During the most recent Democratic debate in Detroit, there was little daylight between contenders when asked about policy differences, drawing a red line for a candidate who may be even slightly pro-gun.
Over the weekend, that unity crystallized, with Democrats explicitly saying Trump’s rhetoric promotes violence, while also seeking to offer comforting words to the nation.
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and only Hispanic candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, said Trump chose to “divide people for his own political benefit,” and that the country is facing those consequences.
“There’s one person that’s directly responsible for the shooting in El Paso and that’s the shooter,” Castro said on ABC’s This Week. “At the same time, as our national leader, you have a role to play in either fanning the flames of division or trying to bring Americans of different backgrounds together.”
“Most presidents have chosen to bring people together,” he added. “This president very early on made the choice to divide people for his own political benefit and these are some of the consequences we're seeing of that.”
This was not the first mass shooting in Texas in recent history. According to the non-partisan Gun Violence Archive, an independent research and data collection organization which defines a mass shooting based on four or more people shot or killed, not including the shooter, 17 mass shootings occurred in the state this year.
In Ohio, Ryan, who also temporarily suspended his campaign to return to his home state, launched into a lengthy attack on Trump and Congress’ role in the shootings, calling their inaction “complicit.” At least nine people died in the Oregon District of Dayton, with at least 27 other people injured, according to police.
“Gun violence has become a plague, destroying our country and robbing us of our peace. A lack of action is to be complicit,” he wrote on Twitter. “I’m calling on the President to call Congress back into session and Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer to pass the background check bill and ban assault weapons.”
Like Texas, Ohio faced a mass shooting earlier this year. The Gun Violence Archive notes that eight mass shootings occurred in the state this year, with the tragedy in Dayton being the highest in fatalities.
While by these measures nearly every state in the country has experienced a mass shooting—a devastating statistic in and of itself—but only a few have drawn the national attention because they were in public and injured or killed a large number of people.
As gun violence continues to rip apart country, with the National Rifle Association maintaining its stronghold on the Republican Party despite increasing infighting and financial strife, Democratic candidates are seeking to paint the starkest contrast possible with Trump to how they would address multiple forms of gun violence.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Trump is “condoning and encouraging white nationalism,” having seen his own community in Indiana be ripped apart over a series of shootings that occurred separately in recent months.
In one higher profile incident, one person died and at least 10 people were injured after a gunman opened fire at a local pub in South Bend in June, just hours before Buttigieg was scheduled to appear in a town hall about recent gun violence.
With Congress on recess through August, candidates have turned their attention with new intensity to Trump, pointedly saying that they will fight him directly over this issue.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) implored the president to “have the courage to act,” following the series of shootings this weekend. “Do something. Do something. Because when I’m elected president, I’m going to do something,” she said in a tweet titled, “My message to the president on gun violence.”
Harris was addressing a reporter in Las Vegas, where a man carried out the deadliest attack in the country’s modern history killing 58 people and injuring 851, including 422 by gunfire, at a concert using AR-15 rifles in 2017. The freshman senator is one of several candidates promising to do whatever is possible through executive action to promote stricter gun measures, including pushing for universal background checks and taking stronger action to revoke the gun manufacturers’ licenses that don’t comply with the law. Democratic contenders have also called for an assault-weapons ban.
On Aug. 2, a teenager used an assault rifle at a food festival in Northern California to murder three people, including a 6-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s also seeking the Democratic nomination, faced a mass shooting in central Washington in June, where two men opened fire on Native American Yakama Indian Reservation and were later charged with killing five people.
Responding to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Inslee said, “The first order of business to reduce white nationalism is to eliminate white nationalism in our White House. The sentiments of fear and division, and outright racism, that this president has emboldened out to be sickening to anyone.”
The Washington governor has a strong track record on gun reforms in his home state, and in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, he challenged Trump on the issue of arming teachers in schools during a meeting with governors at the White House.
Trump responded to the events by tweeting, “Today’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, was not only tragic, it was an act of cowardice. I know that I stand with everyone in this Country to condemn today’s hateful act. There are no reasons or excuses that will ever justify killing innocent people,” he wrote in part.
Several hours later, he elaborated: “The FBI, local and state law enforcement are working together in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio. Information is rapidly being accumulated in Dayton. Much has already be learned in El Paso. Law enforcement was very rapid in both instances. Updates will be given throughout the day!”
Trump has spent the weekend at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey, and hasn’t been seen by reporters. No public pool reports have circulated beyond his initial two tweets.