Orlando police officers seen outside of Pulse nightclub after a fatal shooting and hostage situation on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. | Getty
As lawmakers from both parties rushed to condemn the mass shooting that left 50 dead in Orlando, Republicans appeared to shy away from noting the LGBT connection, while Democrats explicitly brought it up.
Officials say the shooting, the deadliest such attack in U.S. history, occurred at a gay-themed nightclub and is being investigated as a possible act of domestic terrorism. The alleged shooter, who was killed by police, was a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent, leading to fears of an Islamist extremist connection, though his motive has not yet been established.
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The attack saw a collision of a number of sensitive issues in U.S. politics — gay rights, terrorism, Islam, gun control and hate crimes — that have often put Democrats and Republicans at odds. (Republican statements Sunday also avoided discussing gun control.) That the attack occurred in June, the LGBT community’s pride month, which sees celebrations held around the world, added to the tensions.
Republicans in particular have struggled to deal with gay and lesbian issues as that community has gained acceptance in recent years. The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage has prompted a backlash among many conservatives in the GOP base who say their religious liberty is under attack as a result.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who each chair their chambers’ homeland security committees, were among the first to release statements Sunday. Both Republicans expressed sympathy for the victims and resolve in the battle against terrorism, with McCaul calling it “a sobering reminder that radical Islamists are targeting our country and our way of life.” But neither noted the LGBT factor.
(A Johnson aide told POLITICO, “The senator is monitoring developments and will update his statement as more information becomes available.”)
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who failed in his recent bid for his party’s presidential nomination, said he is “grieving for those who lost their lives and praying for those who were injured in this senseless act of hatred, violence and terror.” But even in mentioning the nightclub, Rubio did not specify it was gay-themed.
However, in a phone interview with CNN, Rubio noted the LGBT factor may have played a role. “Common sense tells you he specifically targeted the gay community because of the views that exist in the radical Islamic community with regard to the gay community,” Rubio said.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, meanwhile, drew outrage when he tweeted a part of a Bible verse early Sunday that said: “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” The Republican’s office quickly deleted the tweet, which it told The Dallas Morning News had been scheduled in advance and had nothing to do with the shooting.
Democrats made sure to point out the gay connection to the shooting.
President Barack Obama, in a televised statement to the nation, said the place where the attack occurred “is more than a nightclub. It is a place of solidarity and empowerment.”
“This is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation is an attack on all of us,” Obama added.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton offered assurances to gays, lesbians and others affected by the attack. “Please know that you have millions of allies across our country. I am one of them,” she said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “The pain of this attack in a mainstay of the Orlando LGBT community is surely magnified as our nation celebrates LGBT Pride month.” Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also noted that LGBT theme of the nightclub.
And Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida who chairs the Democratic National Committee, wrote on Twitter that she was “heartbroken” and that her “thoughts are with the victims, their loved ones, and the entire Orlando LGBT community today.”
Some Democrats also called for tightening gun control laws, a prospect that is dim considering the lack of will among Republicans who control both chambers of Congress.
“It’s time for Congress to finally act on gun violence and ban military-style weapons, put limits on clips and magazine sizes, ban those on the terrorist watchlist from purchasing firearms and require background checks on all gun sales,” said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, whose statement also prominently called the shooting “an attack on the LGBT community.”
Officials are still investigating what led the alleged shooter, Omar Mateen, to open fire at the nightclub. NBC News reported that Mateen’s father said the family was shocked over the attack and that his son had in the past expressed anti-gay sentiments.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim activist group, called the attack “appalling.”
“There can never any justification for such cowardly and criminal acts, period,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director.