Thoughts and prayers. That’s what you get from members of Congress. They said it after the Aurora, Colo., shooting in July. They said it after the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, the assassination attempt on former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, and the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.
Now they are saying it after a gunman opened fire on Friday at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in one of the nation's worst mass killings.
This tragedy may hit a little harder, as policymakers are hinting at action on gun legislation. President Obama choked up during his statement on the incident. "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this." That's the closest he has come to saying he wants action on gun control legislation in the wake of other shootings.
On Capitol Hill, the reaction was mostly an outpouring of sympathy and grief. House Speaker John Boehner ordered the flags at half mast.
Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., went further than most lawmakers in their reactions. Feinstein is important because she has already pledged to introduce legislation to bring back the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Obama has said he supports reviving the ban, but there has been almost no activity from the White House to make it happen. That could change after Friday. Lautenberg is important because has also has called for an assault weapons ban and he sponsors legislation on that same topic.
Feinstein said "weapons of war don’t belong on our streets or in our theaters, shopping malls and, most of all, our schools. I hope and trust that in the next session of Congress there will be sustained and thoughtful debate about America’s gun culture and our responsibility to prevent more loss of life.”
Lautenberg said, "If we do not take action to address gun violence, shooting tragedies like this will continue."
"The nation is ready for this conversation," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chimed in.
Those statements went beyond the typical ones from Capitol Hill:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “The entire nation will continue to stand as a source of support to this community in the days and weeks to come.”
Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said, “I am shocked and saddened by the horrific news from Sandy Hook Elementary School this morning, and I pray that kids, teachers, staff, and families reach safety as quickly as possible.”
Senate Republicans said in a tweet: “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by today's tragic shooting in Connecticut. Please keep them in yours as well.”
Yes, anyone within range of a television or an Internet connection can’t help but think about the shootings, where the death toll has been estimated as high as 30 and parents are worried sick about their children.
You get much grief but precious little action on guns in Congress. The best shot at legislative action comes from Feinstein's attempt to reinstate the assault weapons ban.
Another hope, but without a lot of momentum, is legislation by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., to tighten up state background-check laws. It has the advantage of piggy-backing on existing laws to improve the databases.
That's cold comfort to gun-control advocates.
“If you don’t have the human decency at this point to speak up about this issue, you’ve lost your humanity. This has gone too far. Everybody literally should be sick right now,” said Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “It’s time for the president to speak about this. Not long ago we saw the power of the bully pulpit when he spoke out on gay marriage. It’s time for him to find his voice and stop cowering to the [National Rifle Association].”
His outrage echoes some of the people sounding off on Twitter.
“Please let this be a wake-up call for gun control if all of the other shootings haven't been,” said one tweet.
“As much as I love Americans, today I would be ashamed to [be] a citizen of a nation whose lawmakers have yet to end this madness for good,” said another tweeter.
Gun-rights advocates tend to ride out these waves of turmoil in relative silence. They say that tragedies like the Connecticut shooting (and the Aurora shooting) are used as emotional wedges for gun-control groups to win political points.
Advocates on both sides of the gun issue say part of the problem with the public outcry in the wake of such tragedies is that the facts about each individual circumstance aren’t always known immediately. In some cases, an assault weapon was used. In other cases, a handgun was used. That makes it difficult for anyone lobbying on a specific gun issue to react quickly.
Generally, the lack of immediate facts helps the gun-rights advocates because they can keep their responses general without delving into the areas that they deem dangerous. After the Aurora shooting, an NRA spokesman gave a generic "thoughts and prayers" comment but declined further speculation until all the facts were known. By then, the story had gone cold.