Presidential candidates’ reactions to latest mass shooting adhered to party lines, as Democrats pushed for stricter laws and GOP was quick to blame mental illness
Presidential candidates are weighing their very public consciences in the aftermath of the Oregon college shooting, as Democrats and Republicans signal a need for long-awaited gun control legislation against, as the Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly put it, the cost of “our freedom that allows insane individuals to kill so many people”.
Or, as Jeb Bush put it on Friday: “stuff happens.”
“We’re in a difficult time in our country and I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this,” the former Florida governor said at a campaign event. “It’s very sad to see, and I resist this notion because we had this challenge as governor – stuff happens. There’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”
From frontrunner Hillary Clinton to the self-declared socialist but firearm-regulation moderate Bernie Sanders, liberals danced – delicately and less so – around what Barack Obama on Thursday called “a political choice” to not enact stricter gun laws. Conservatives were quick to jump on the president’s “reflexive” remarks, though even Donald Trump was already calling for mental health reform – and Bush found himself defending another out-of-context gaffe.
Perhaps none of the 21 contenders for the White House was more immediately forceful in a call for reform than former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. “Only real gun reforms will stop mass shootings from occurring nearly every day,” the long-shot Democrat wrote on Twitter, pre-empting Obama’s phrase that “thoughts and prayers” were not enough, even hours after the mass shooting.
Clinton said the pattern of mass killings -- the Umpqua shooting was the 994th such incident in the US since Obama’s reelection in late 2012 -- was “beyond my comprehension”.
“We have got to have the political will to keep people safe,” she told reporters in Boston on Thursday evening. “I know there is way to have sensible gun control measures that prevent violence, prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands and save lives.”
Clinton has pledged to “take on the gun lobby” and push for universal background checks if elected. Further, she said at a recent private fundraiser that the US supreme court “was wrong on the second amendment”, which protects the right to bear arms.
Sanders, the Vermont senator who is a relative moderate on gun control, said he was “horrified by these never-ending mass shootings” and went on to advocate for a variety of legislative measures instead of “shouting at each other”.
“We need a comprehensive approach,” Sanders said in a statement on Thursday evening. “We need sensible gun-control legislation which prevents guns from being used by people who should not have them. We must greatly expand and improve our mental health capabilities so individuals and families can get the psychological help then need when they need it.”
Republicans, with their broad presidential field and wide constituency of gun owners, veered from contemplative to combative in responding to the Roseburg shooting. They tended to focus on mental illness and a “focus on the facts”, not background checks or what Obama openly said was “something we should politicize”.
Trump, the Republican frontrunner who said in the wake of the August shooting of a television news crew in Virginia that the firearm crisis “isn’t a gun problem, it’s a mental health problem”, struck a similar tone after the Oregon tragedy.
“It sounds like another mental health problem,” the real-estate mogul told the Washington Post. “So many of these people, they’re coming out of the woodwork. We have to really get to the bottom of it. It’s so hard to even talk about these things, because you see them and it’s such a tragedy. It’s happening more and more. I just don’t remember – years back, I just don’t remember these things happening. Certainly not with this kind of frequency.”
At an event in Dubuque, Iowa on Friday morning, Florida senator Marco Rubio described the shooting in Oregon as a “horrible tragedy”.
“Our country needs to examine and not immediately talk about what they use to kill people and focus on why it is this violence is happening,” he said. “In some cases it is mental illness, in others we just don’t know. We need to really focus on the facts before we take hard positions.”
The Republican insisted that “the reflexive reaction on the left is to say we need more gun laws” but that “there’s just no evidence that these gun laws would prevent these shootings”.
Rubio also criticized Obama’s speech on the tragedy: “I don’t think the solutions he’s proposing will create a solution. This is a complex issue that may not have a federal solution.”
Ohio governor John Kasich, who came under fire from the National Rifle Association in the 1990s for voting for the assault weapons ban while serving in Congress, echoed Trump’s concern about mental illness.
“If we look at these cases a lot of these people have mental illness – and that’s one of the areas where we’ve really fallen down,” Kasich told NBC. “We are not treating the mentally ill. We are not making sure that someone who is mentally ill can’t get access to a gun.”
Bush, the former Florida governor, almost immediately tweeted his condolences to the Oregon victims on Thursday.
At a campaign event on Friday in Greenville, South Carolina, however, Bush seemed to accept mass shootings as a basic reality of American life.
“Stuff happens,” he told voters, according to a tweet from the New Yorker staff writer Ryan Lizza, which quickly went viral.
A spokesman for the Bush campaign did not immediately respond to a request for clarification, just one week after Bush -- currently in a make-or-break moment in the Republican nominating contest -- found himself under fire from black voters over a comment about “free stuff”, which was also largely taken out of context.
But in response to a followup question from Lizza on Friday, Bush doubled down: “No, it wasn’t a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Why would you explain to me what I said wrong?”
Seeing a campaign gaffe in the making, the reporter pushed the governor: “Well you said, ‘Stuff happens’.”
“Things happen all the time,” Bush replied. “There – is that better?”
Barack Obama, asked at a White House event on Friday about the comments, responded: “I don’t even think I have to react to that one. I think the American people should hear that an make their own judgments based on the fact that every couple months, we have a mass shooting. And they can decide whether they consider that ‘stuff happening’.”
It was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, as usual, who took a much more pointed stance launching a strident attack on Obama’s forceful statement from the White House.
“We hardly know any of the details about this horrific tragedy,” Huckabee said in a statement. “What kind of gun was used? How did the shooter obtain it? What is the motive? Does the shooter have a history of mental illness? Was this an act of terror?
“With few facts, Obama is quick to admittedly politicize this tragedy to advance his liberal, anti-gun agenda. For this president to make a political pronouncement is at best premature and at worst ignorantly inflammatory.”
The Oregon shooter, federal officials said on Friday, obtained 13 guns in his possession legally.
Additional reporting by Sabrina Siddiqui in Dubque, Iowa.
Update, 6:43 pm EST: As Think Progress reported, Bush's campaign called the criticism surrounding his remarks "sad and beyond craven" in a statement.
Watch footage of Bush's remarks, as posted online, below.