Decoding Political Responses to the Planned Parenthood Shooting

The immediate political responses to the violence at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility on Black Friday conveyed the mixture of emotion and calculation that we've sadly come to expect in the wake of mass shootings in America. Empathy with the victims and frank consternation at yet another outburst of gun violence was mixed with cautious but clearly discernible positioning on what to do about mass shootings in the United States.

This time, the violence is further freighted with the fact that the shooting occurred at the nation's most controversial health care provider, placing it squarely within the active and volatile partisan politics surrounding abortion and women's reproductive health. While the desire to remain cautious before drawing conclusions about the shooter's motivations without sufficient direct evidence seems prudent, the setting of the shooting and its connection to the current political climate nonetheless has colored the responses of political actors.

Texas politicians, as well as national political candidates who will soon enough be seeking presidential primary votes in Texas, have also weighed in, with their eyes on the expectations of potential primary voters. Attitudes toward the causes of gun violence and mass killings, abortion and Planned Parenthood captured in the November 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll illustrate the partisan context for these public responses, suggesting where and why political elites have been willing to extrapolate from the known facts of the case — particularly the motivations and mental state of the alleged assailant — and where they have not.

Republican political leaders' reticence to prejudge the facts of this case were apparent over the weekend when it came to speculating about the gunman's potential political motivations against Planned Parenthood, but such reticence receded notably when talking about his mental health. This public response found leaders seeming far more willing to perform a psychological diagnosis based on the shooter's description as a loner and to declare him mentally ill than they were to acknowledge the prima facie facts that of all the businesses in an area likely to be highly trafficked on Black Friday, the gunman chose to walk into a Planned Parenthood and open fire.

Whatever we eventually learn via the legal process about the gunman's cognitive capacity, this pattern of Republican responses fits squarely within the attitudes of GOP voters on the causes of gun violence, along with their attitudes toward abortion and Planned Parenthood. In the November 2015 UT/TT Poll, when asked what factor was most to blame for mass shootings a plurality of Texas Republicans (34 percent) cited failures of the mental health system to identify dangerous individuals. The next most prevalent cause cited among Republicans included unstable family situations (16 percent) and the media attention given to the perpetrators of mass shootings (12 percent).

But maybe more importantly, if one wants to understand GOP candidates' and elected officials' public response in this instance of gun violence, 77 percent of Texas Republicans have an unfavorable view of Planned Parenthood, with 67 percent holding a "very unfavorable" view. While this is not surprising — either in the main or after a summer of allegations against the organization — one would be hard pressed to find any Republican looking to stand up for Planned Parenthood, even in the aftermath of such a tragedy, let alone pointing fingers at any politician for rhetoric that might in any way have made this act of violence more likely. So to blame the shooter, his mental health or his family, rather than the abundance of political and/or ideological animus toward Planned Parenthood, harmonizes with the GOP public opinion landscape faced by many of the 2016 candidates. 

Given this political context and a media far more inclined to connect these dots, it's not surprising that the Republican responses ranged from standard redirection to the flamboyant in their efforts to meet their voters' expectations. On the standard end of the spectrum, watch Texas Congressman Michael McCaul's demure pivot from rejecting calling the assault an act of domestic terrorism to invoking the mental health issue on ABC News' This Week the Sunday after the shooting — a move he executed in 10 seconds. On the more flamboyant end, Donald Trump also moved quickly to mental health policy on Meet the Press, albeit in a very Trump-like approach. He exclaimed, "He's a maniac...he's a maniac!" and called him "a sick person" before making his own slide into talking about how he sees "a lot of dislike for Planned Parenthood" at his rallies.

Nor were those on the left immune to similar impulses to frame their responses in line with their likely voters. Among Texas Democrats, a plurality blame mass shootings on current gun laws (28 percent), followed by the failures of the mental health system (25 percent). On abortion, 56 percent of Texas Democrats identify themselves as pro-choice, and a majority hold a favorable view of Planned Parenthood.

President Obama's Saturday statement expressed what has become his trademark exasperation with the lack of a political response to gun violence. He wearily said again that "we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them." While this echoes his previous, more explicit calls for Congress to pass additional gun control legislation, the last phrase also gestured awkwardly at the reality of the increasingly prevalent mental health dimension of this issue. Of course, if you're going to call them "weapons of war," do you really think anyone other than combat soldiers should have access to them?

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley issued "#StandwithPP" tweets. Bernie Sanders also tweeted support, albeit without the hashtag.

The attitudes revealed in polling provide ready frames for political leaders on the left and right to use in crafting their responses to the sad and troubling shootings in Colorado Springs. No doubt, many of the responses among the presidential candidates and other elected officials reflect their own views of the matter to a large extent and thus cannot be reduced to chasing public opinion or mere hypocritical pandering. Yet it requires one to entirely ignore the contexts of both the shooting and the current political climate to assume that public officials are immune to the partisan currents they all navigate as part of their jobs. 

How politicians balance the need to appeal to those whom they would have elect them with the higher principles of integrity and truth have become major themes of the present presidential contests in both parties. It's difficult not to surmise that the patterns of public opinion have shaped political figures' public responses to the Planned Parenthood shootings, even in the absence of information about the alleged shooter now in custody.

In political terms, the cruelest irony is that soon we'll likely know a lot more about the alleged shooter's motivations than we ever will about the true motives of most of the public figures currently making pronouncements about him.

This article originally appeared in TribTalk.