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."
The ire on both sides makes it difficult to compromise, said Robert J. Dold, a former GOP House member who broke ranks with his party to call for stricter gun control measures after the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting last year.
"I'm a little wary to criticize people for the language they use, as long as it's sincere," he said. The Illinois Republican added that he had struggled with his own response after mass shootings while he was in office, which also included the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
In that case, Dold said, he thought of his three school-age children and wondered how the parents of the dead could possibly go on with their lives. He went on the House floor to say thoughts and prayers were not enough, and that both sides had to work together on a solution, he said.
"These are significant tragedies that impact our nation, so yes, you do grapple with what to say. And anyone who thinks that it is done off the cuff, with little or no regard, I think is incorrect," he said.
Not everyone was prepared to let lawmakers who use rote language off easy.
"The idea that a politician can say, 'thoughts and prayers,' and do nothing is not only a weak position, it's a dereliction of their duty," said Will Fischer, director of government relations at VoteVets.org, a liberal-leaning veterans' political group that has called for gun control measures. "In the military, when a mission fails, it's not like military leaders say, 'thoughts and prayers,' and then walk away. You learn from what happens. You make changes so the situation doesn't happen again."
Rita Kirk, a professor of communication studies and the director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University, said it has become so commonplace for politicians to talk about sending thoughts and prayers that the phrase has become meaningless.
"It means that now you feel your obligation to me is over, it's not in my power to do something for you, it's in the hands of a greater power," she said. "It's sort of like, 'Good luck.'"
She said it would be more authentic for lawmakers to try to convey compassion for the myriad and overwhelming feelings that victims experience and to follow up with some kind of action.
"If you are not going to take the time to think about it, and try to come up with a heartfelt message, just keep your mouth shut," she said.
Todd, the GOP strategist, didn't see it that way. He said it's the criticism that's political, not the expressions of sympathy.
"That's most people's reaction. When they hear someone is in a tough situation, they say, 'I will pray for you,'" he said. "This is a human reaction, not a political reaction."
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