Almost all the prospective 2016 presidential candidates have responded in some way to Wednesday night’s mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, with most at least sharing their outrage, thoughts, and prayers via social media, while some have offered additional longer takes in speeches or media appearances. For the most part, the more substantial commentary has quickly broken down along partisan lines, with Democrats connecting the attack to racism and the need for gun control, while Republicans have preferred to avoid race entirely, focusing instead on how evil the attacker is, as well as how government is not the solution to evil.
On Wednesday afternoon, Hillary Clinton had actually been in Charleston speaking at an event about a mile from the church where the shooting later occurred. She spoke of the “crime of hate” Thursday at a campaign stop in Las Vegas, remarking how:
In the days ahead, we will again ask what led to this terrible tragedy and where we as a nation need to go. In order to make sense of it, we have to be honest. We have to face hard truths about race, violence, guns and division.
She also asked, “How many people do we need to see cut down before we act?” and suggested that, regarding gun control, “this time we have to find answers together.” Meanwhile, in a post on Twitter, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called attention to the racial element of the crime:
The Charleston church killings are a tragic reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation. This senseless violence fills me with outrage, disgust and a deep, deep sadness. The hateful killing of nine people praying inside a church is a horrific reminder that, while we have made significant progress in advancing civil rights in this country, we are far from eradicating racism.
He did not mention gun control, and as Politico notes, that is probably because the senator has a somewhat mixed record on that issue, mostly because Vermont is a relatively pro-gun state. Speaking on Morning Joe today, Governor Martin O’Malley brought up the country’s “horrible epidemic of gun violence,” though acknowledged that gun-control legislation was always going to be a big challenge to get through Congress. Regarding the suspected racial motivation of the crime, the former mayor of Baltimore referred to America’s “very painful racial legacy” before conceding, “I don’t think anybody’s figured out the magic solution to that.”
Looking at the Republican side, most candidates used religion and morality to frame the shooting, and many, for now, have downplayed the idea that racism was a factor. Speaking Thursday at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference, Senator Ted Cruz remarked that “the body of Christ is in mourning, that a sick and deranged person came and prayed with a historically black congregation for an hour, and then murdered nine innocent souls.” Governor Mike Huckabee went even further in a post on his Facebook page:
A church is called a sanctuary because it’s a place of refuge and respite from the earthly and connects us to the heavenly. The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. became a scene of unspeakable carnage because an evil person violated the sanctuary where earth and heaven meet and turned it into a place where earth and hell meet. No civilized person can react except with revulsion to such a senseless, cowardly, and despicable act. And for it to happen in one of America’s truly great and gentile cities adds to the horror. All Americans join in the condemnation of this act, but for Christians, such horror is especially painful because a holy place for peace and prayer has been infected and desecrated by demonic violence. The prayers that were interrupted by a mass murderer will be continued by a grieving nation.
Evil was on the minds of other GOP candidates as well. In his response to the shooting, Ben Carson tried to add some broader points about society and intolerance:
Though racial based hate is still very much alive as last night so violently reminded us. But I worry about a new hate that is growing in our great nation. I fear our intolerance of one another is the new battle ground of evil. Today many feel it is ok to hate someone who thinks differently than you do. The left hates the right. The right hates the left. This attitude is poison. Poison that will sicken all of us.
Just because someone is for Obamacare and another is against doesn’t change the fact we are all brothers and sisters. All Americans. As a brain surgeon I can assure you that all of our brains look the same, no matter what our skin color or party affiliation. The America I know and love has fought evil all over the world to protect evil’s victims. At home we must dedicate ourselves to not hating anyone based on their politics.
But Jeb Bush wasn’t willing to link the shooting to race, despite the fact that the suspect, Dylann Roof, reportedly told his victims he was targeting them because they were black. According to Huffington Post reporter Laura Bassett, while Bush agreed that it “looked like” Roof’s actions were racially motivated, he still didn’t know “what was on the mind or the heart of the man,” adding that, “Nine people lost their lives, and they were African American. You can judge what it is.” A Bush spokesman later tried to walk back the candidate’s comment,
Also avoiding the connection to race, Senator Rick Santorum simply focused on the more generic idea of lost morality:
It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be? You’re sort of lost that somebody could walk into a Bible study in a church and indiscriminately kill people.
But Santorum also tried to associate the crime with his campaign to protect religious liberty:
All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country. This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation.
Speaking on The View, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham walked a similar line:
There are real people who are organized out there to kill people in religion and based on race, this guy’s just whacked out. But it’s 2015. There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.
Lastly, Obama’s speech about the shooting yesterday, in which he lamented the ongoing instances of gun violence and the seemingly impossible task of more gun control, did not go unnoticed. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, speaking on Fox News, insisted that evil wasn’t a blank check for more government:
I’m a Christian, my faith teaches me there’s evil and sin in the world and no powerful government can eradicate that. I’m not saying government needs to give up—this president has the government doing too many things, but it’s not going to eradicate evil; it would also be a good time to call America to prayer. This president doesn’t seem to like to do that. It’s an important part of the country’s tradition.
As part of a broad speech delivered at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference yesterday, Rand Paul made a similar point:
What kind of person goes in a church and shoots nine people? There’s a sickness in our country. There’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to be fixed by your government. It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from. And I think that if we understand that, we’ll understand and have better expectations of what we get from our government.
But in the same speech, Paul also warned his fellow Republican candidates not to inflate the stakes when talking about gun rights:
Everybody is for the Second Amendment. All 55 candidates running for president are for the Second Amendment — on our side. But the thing is that a lot of young people, that might not be their primary issue.
As of yet, no other 2016 candidates have made substantial comments on the shooting; we will update this post if they do.