The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After yet another mass shooting, some Senate Democrats call for action, but many avoid specifics

Joe Zevuloni wipes a tear while visiting a makeshift memorial in Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Feb. 16 in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people were killed. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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While Republican lawmakers have faced criticism for rote offerings of “thoughts and prayers” in response to mass shootings, Democratic lawmakers have begun to adopt something of a boilerplate response of their own to national gun tragedies.

See if you can spot it in the Democratic senators' statements below.

Here's Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin:

Here's Oregon's Ron Wyden:

Spotting the pattern yet? I'll give you one more: Sen. Christopher A. Coons of Delaware:

The common thread uniting these sentiments is a call for action: “another tragedy our nation must confront,” “unless Congress does something about it,” “We cannot simply stand by and fail to act.”

What's missing from these Democratic statements, however, is any mention of which specific actions Congress could take to stem the carnage.

Wonkblog scoured the Twitter feeds and news releases of the 49 senators in the Democratic caucus to see how they publicly responded to this week's horrific school shooting in Florida (a table tallying what we found is at the bottom of this article).

So far, 26 Democrats, including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New Jersey's Cory Booker, have cited no specific gun control measures in their public responses to the shooting on Twitter or in news releases. Five senators, hailing primarily from red states such as North Dakota (Heidi Heitkamp) and Alabama (Doug Jones), haven't mentioned the shooting at all.

That leaves 18 Democratic senators — a minority of the caucus — who have called for specific gun control measures to be enacted in the wake of the shootings, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and a ban on bump stocks.

This isn't to imply that the Democrats who haven't called for any specific gun-control policies aren't actually in support of any. Universal background checks and restrictions on assault weapons, for instance, are part of the 2016 Democratic Party platform, and most Democratic senators are on the record as supporting at least one of these proposals.

That, however, gets us to the heart of the issue. There's arguably no better time to make the public case for specific gun-control policies than after a mass shooting, when the public is hurting and searching for answers.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons ban, introduced last year, is a prime example: Gun violence researchers say it would be one of the most effective ways to curtail high-casualty mass shootings like the one in Parkland, Fla. One researcher has estimated that after Congress allowed the prior assault weapons ban to lapse in 2004, the following decade saw a 183 percent increase in the number of shootings involving six or more dead victims.

But roughly half of the Feinstein bill's 22 original co-sponsors have not been making a public case for it after the Parkland shooting.

It's not terribly surprising, though, that Democratic lawmakers are concluding there's no reason to stick their necks out on policies that have zero chance in the current Congress. After all, the primary reason Congress has passed no gun-control legislation since 2007 is that Republican lawmakers have been lockstep in their opposition to such measures. During President Barack Obama's years in office, Senate Republicans successfully blockaded a number of gun-control measures backed by Democrats, including modest changes such as universal background checks.

Part of the reason Republicans have presented such a unified front on gun control is that while the measures are widely popular among the public, the intensity of opposition to gun control bills is much greater than the intensity of support for them. Lawmakers tend to hear a lot more from the minority of people who oppose, say, an assault weapons ban than they do from the majority who support it.

On the other hand, one reason gun-control supporters aren't as mobilized on the issue is that Democratic politicians have been wary of making a full-throated case for it. People often calibrate their political views based on what they're hearing from their political parties. This suggests that one way for Democratic lawmakers to move the needle on gun control would be to simply make a big campaign issue of it.

While Democratic senators can't change their Republican colleagues' minds, in other words, they do have the power to influence how their constituents think about gun control. But their largely muted response to the Parkland shooting suggests they remain hesitant to do so.

Senator State Handle Specific gun control policy mentioned? Statement
Amy Klobuchar Minnesota AmyKlobuchar YES
Angus King (I) Maine SenAngusKing NO
Benjamin L. Cardin Maryland BenCardinforMD YES
Bernie Sanders (I) Vermont SenSanders NO
Bill Nelson Florida SenBillNelson YES
Robert P. Casey Jr. Pennsylvania SenBobCasey YES
Robert Menendez New Jersey SenatorMenendez YES
Brian E. Schatz Hawaii BrianSchatz YES
Catherine Cortez Masto Nevada SenCortezMasto NO
Christopher A. Coons Delaware ChrisCoons NO
Chris Van Hollen Maryland ChrisVanHollen NO
Christopher S. Murphy Connecticut ChrisMurphyCT YES
Charles E. Schumer New York SenSchumer NO
Claire McCaskill Missouri ClaireCMC YES
Cory Booker New Jersey CoryBooker NO
Debbie Stabenow Michigan SenStabenow YES
Dianne Feinstein California SenFeinstein YES
Richard J. Durbin Illinois DickDurbin YES
Doug Jones Alabama SenDougJones NO N/A
Edward J. Markey Massachusetts SenMarkey YES
Elizabeth Warren Massachusetts SenWarren NO
Gary Peters Michigan SenGaryPeters NO
Heidi Heitkamp North Dakota SenatorHeithamp NO N/A
Jack Reed Rhode Island SenJackReed NO
Jeanne Shaheen New Hampshire SenatorShaheen NO
Jeff Merkley Oregon JeffMerkley NO
Joe Donnelly Indiana SenDonnelly NO
Joe Manchin III West Virginia Sen_JoeManchin NO N/A
Jon Tester Montana JonTester NO
Kamala D. Harris California KamalaHarris NO
Kirsten Gillibrand New York SenGillibrand NO
Maggie Hassan New Hampshire SenatorHassan NO
Maria Cantwell Washington SenatorCantwell NO N/A
Mark R. Warner Virginia MarkWarner NO
Martin Heinrich New Mexico MartinHeinrich NO
Mazie K. Hirono Hawaii MazieHirono NO N/A
Michael F. Bennet Colorado SenBennetCO YES
Patrick J. Leahy Vermont SenatorLeahy NO
Patty Murray Washington PattyMurray YES
Richard Blumenthal Connecticut SenBlumenthal YES
Ron Wyden Oregon RonWyden NO
Sheldon Whitehouse Rhode Island SenWhitehouse YES
Sherrod Brown Ohio SherrodBrown NO
Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin SenatorBaldwin NO
Tammy Duckworth Illinois SenDuckworth NO
Tim Kaine Virginia TimeKaine YES
Tina Smith Minnesota TinaSmithMN NO
Thomas R. Carper Delaware SenatorCarper NO
Tom Udall New Mexico SenatorTomUdall YES