Politics & Government

Why the Orlando massacre is more likely to divide than unite America’s politicians

Unlike other recent tragedies in U.S. history, the mass shooting in Orlando is unlikely to bring America politicians together for solutions.

The attack touched on a pair of hot-button issues – restricting guns, and the targeting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans – that is expected to continue to divide an already divided nation in the midst of a contentious election.

“As soon as something like this happens ...it instantly polarizes people,” said Joseph Young, a professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University who studies political violence. “It’s the nature of these gun attacks that sparks these real divisive responses.”

Even as television screens were showing lines of people waiting their turn to donate blood for the injured and Sunday’s broadcast of the Tony Awards was dedicated to the victims, partisan fault lines hardened.

Both sides reacted predictably Sunday after news broke that a shooter who professed ties to the Islamic State terrorist group killed 50 people at an Orlando nightclub.

Democrats called for more restrictions on guns and protections for gays and lesbians.

“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub,” President Barack Obama said at the White House. “And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

“The American public is beseeching us to act on commonsense, sensible gun violence prevention measures, and we must heed that call,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Republicans mostly focused on terrorism and the need to combat the Islamic State.

“Confronting the threat of violent homegrown radicalization is one of the greatest counterterrorism challenges our law enforcement and intelligence community faces,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. said in statement. “We must do more at every level of government and within our own communities to identify and mitigate this cancer on our free society and prevent further loss of innocent life.” But standing in Orlando Sunday, Rubio decried the rampage as an attack on all Americans, including gays and lesbians.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called on Democrats, starting with Obama and the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, to be honest about what needed to be done. “For all the Democrats who are loud champions of the gay and lesbian community whenever there is a culture battle waging, now is the opportunity to speak out against an ideology that calls for the murder of gays and lesbians,” he said.

By late Sunday, it began to appear as if the worst mass shooting in United States history was unlikely to lead to any specific changes.

“Instead of good coming out of this it is polarizing an already polarizing electorate during a hyper-polarized election,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the left-of-center Brookings Institution.

Democrats and Republicans largely put aside their differences in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with members of both parties working with the White House to give then-President George W. Bush the authority to use force against those responsible.

“These are different times, and we must act decisively. The American people expect it, and they will accept nothing less,” then Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said at the time. “The world has changed, and we are acting appropriately.”

Americans, too, largely came together after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, though conservatives criticized Obama for not immediately calling it terrorism.

“After 9/11 the US rallied together,” tweeted Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and president and founder of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm. “After Orlando the country feels more politically divided than any time I've been alive.”

After a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left 26 people, including 20 young children, dead in 2012, little changed around gun ownership laws.

After that attack – which Obama describes as the worst day of his presidency – he implored Congress to act. But after lawmakers failed to expand background checks, an angry Obama blasted them, calling it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.” Instead, Obama acted unilaterally to force background checks of more gun buyers.

Some are promising to push again for changes.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., immediately announced that he would introduce new legislation to ban those convicted of hate crimes from purchasing firearms.

Hudak said so far politicians were turning to their “go-to-issues.” But, he said, the only people who could change the conversation in the country are Obama, Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, and only if they have an honest discussion about all the issues involved in massacre.

The presumptive nominees, however, focused on different tactics: Trump seized on the shooting to call for a more muscular response to Islamic terrorism and asked for Obama to “step down” because he did not use the words “radical Islam” to condemn the attack; Clinton called for more curbs on guns and protections for gays as well as enhanced efforts to fight terrorism.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark