“Thoughts and prayers” is basically the entire GOP platform on gun violence

Today saw not one but two mass shootings, on opposite sides of the country. In San Bernardino, California, three gunmen entered a center for persons with disabilities and killed at least fourteen people. In Savannah, Georgia, a single gunman killed a woman and injured three more people in the early hours of this morning.

The San Bernardino shooting has received the bulk of attention today, from the media and from politicians, who were quick to tweet out responses to the tragedy.

The partisan divide was…let’s go with stark:

All three Democratic presidential candidates responded to the shooting by calling for something — ANYTHING — by way of action to prevent the next mass shooting. All of the Republican presidential candidates called for prayers, and perhaps some thoughts, for the victims, their families and first responders on the scene.

It didn’t stop there, though. Igor Volsky has found 38 (and counting) Republican members of Congress — not counting the ones who are running for president — who tweeted out some version of “thoughts and prayers” immediately following the San Bernardino shooting. He also made a second pass through with said members’ contributions from the NRA. Here’s a sample:

As was the case with October’s mass shooting in Oregon, the Republican party line hasn’t even included the traditional hand-waving at the need for improved mental health services — even as there are bills currently stalled in Congress that would improve our country’s mental health services! Instead, the unified message has been that thoughts and prayers are the necessary and sufficient reaction to this shooting tragedy.

This is disgusting, and has been (deservingly) called out as such.

Religious people, mostly but not exclusively conservative and Christian, have jumped to prayer’s defenseWhat’s with all this prayer shaming? they ask, What’s the harm in genuinely expressing sympathy and good vibes?

In isolation, nothing. As I’ve written before, praying for the victims of a shooting tragedy, or their families, seems a tad misguided. But if you, personally, want to send good thoughts in the direction of someone who has just experienced a loss, go ahead. It doesn’t hurt anyone, although God’s continued agnosticism on American gun violence has made it pretty clear that it isn’t helping, either. What absolutely is hurting people, however, is the continued implicit insistence of the Thoughts and Prayers Caucus that there simply isn’t anything else we can do about America’s off-the-charts homicide rate.

Because when politicians offer their thoughts and prayers, they don’t do it in a vacuum. These are people charged with making sure that tragedies like these don’t happen again, and as pointed out in Volsky’s tweets above, the same representatives who are driven to prayer by the sheer horror of this tragedy have stopped even pretending to put any effort into curbing gun violence. Hell, they’ve blocked efforts to research the issue.

This being the case, the regular call to prayer we see every time someone takes legally-purchased guns and kills a whole bunch of people with them comes off as nothing more than a dodge. Prayer is being passed off as what we’re supposed to do instead of coming up with any ideas for how to make mass shootings happen less than once per day. Given that the number of prayers being offered by various politicians seems to be directly proportional to the size of the investment the NRA has made in their campaigns, you don’t have to be all that creative to imagine why.

Rick Santorum fixing gun violence, via Wikimedia Commons

Rick Santorum solving gun violence, via Wikimedia Commons

And here’s the thing: There are a LOT of really simple things we could do to lower the number of Americans killed in mass shootings. For starters, we could let the CDC start researching gun violence, which doesn’t restrict anyone’s right to own any kind of gun and would at least give us some clues as to what would work if we ever get the political will to pass a law. Of the policy proposals Democrats have endorsed this election cycle, the assault weapons ban, a federal gun registry, universal background checks, bans on gun purchases by the mentally ill and closing the gun show loophole all have majority support from the American public. That doesn’t even touch on policies that have proven successful in other counties with high rates of gun ownership, like Canada’s gun licensing process.

If Republican thoughts and prayers were followed up with anything by way of an actionable solution to this epidemic-level problem, it’d be one thing. But when their conversation starts and ends with an earnest, prayerful tweet, it feels like they’re sticking their fingers in their ears until the news cycle moves on. They bring no actual ideas to the table, just well-wishes. Doing nothing appears to be the line item on the party platform, but “thoughts and prayers” are scribbled into the margins in order to give candidates something to tweet out.

The Atlantic’s Emma Green is dismayed that prayer isn’t being welcomed in the political debate today, writing that “At one time in American history, liberals and conservatives shared a language of God, but that’s clearly no longer the case; any invocation of faith is taken as implicit advocacy of right-wing political beliefs.” But today, prayer really is being used to defend a particular right-wing political belief: that the only feasible solution to mass shootings is to get on your knees and ask God to let more than a week pass before the next one. One political party’s pseudo-religious commitment to that belief is indirectly contributing to the deaths of thousands of Americans every year.

If that’s what prayer is being used for, it deserves to be shamed.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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