WASHINGTON -- Criticism of lawmakers who send "thoughts and prayers" to victims of mass shootings has attracted a lot of attention in the media. But it doesn't appear to have caused many on Capitol Hill to find something else to say.
Roll Call reviewed statements by lawmakers after Sunday's mass shooting during a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left 26 people, including an unborn child, dead, authorities said. The analysis found that dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reverted to some form of the expression, sparking an increasingly familiar backlash from gun control advocates and other critics who said the words have become meaningless in light of congressional inaction.
The New York Times published a list of Congress' top 10 career recipients of National Rifle Association funding, juxtaposed with their statements of sympathy. A left-leaning company that distributes politically charged video games on the internet touted a "Thoughts and Prayers" game. Critics gave it a hashtag on Twitter.
Some on the right, meanwhile, pushed back, saying the criticism is insulting to communities that find solace in prayer.
"That's what people in the real world say when they are confronted with a senseless tragedy," said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist. "People are free to belittle prayer if they like. It's a free country, and you can say that that is irrelevant. But I think that most people think that it is important."
The impasse was not surprising to experts on political messaging and the gun debate. They say the argument has little to do with the actual words that politicians choose. Offering "thoughts and prayers" after a tragedy is, after all, such a standard response that it is a staple of the condolence card industry. Rather, the outcry over such phrasing is a symptom of both sides' frustrations with a frozen debate.
"In a country as polarized as it is, I don't know that there is anything that you could say that would make the other side happy," said Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College and the author of several books on the gun debate. "You are not going to make the other side happy unless you completely and totally cave in on your positions."
That, of course, is not what either side did after the shootings on Sunday. Instead, both Republicans and Democrats spoke of "thoughts and prayers," though Democrats frequently followed up with calls to action.
"Our hearts are breaking for the victims of the (First Baptist Church) shooting in Sutherland Springs, and our prayers go out to their families and friends," the House Republican Conference tweeted, in one typical example.
Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee offered their own version. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Sutherland Springs today," read a tweet from the committee minority's account. "This senseless violence must end."