WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a natural reaction in times of grief: Politicians from both parties offered supportive thoughts and prayers for those killed in the San Bernardino shootings. But within hours, social media was awash with pushback from gun control advocates calling out those who offer prayers without pushing for tighter gun laws.
"Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted. "Your 'prayers' should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again."
Murphy, who has been outspoken in pressing for gun control legislation, added at a news conference Thursday: "Members of Congress don't get elected to send out sympathy tweets."
As GOP presidential candidates and conservative lawmakers tweeted, one by one, their prayers after the shooting, Igor Volsky, a contributing editor at the liberal website ThinkProgress, started tweeting back how much each had received in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association, which opposes tighter gun laws.
Volsky said in an interview that his Twitter campaign stemmed from frustration with those who "routinely talk about all the thoughts and prayers they're going to send to victims, and yet they do nothing time and time again in terms of actually reducing these things from happening."
The hashtag #thoughtsandprayers quickly was adopted by those venting frustration with the prayerful sentiments offered by those opposed to congressional action on gun legislation.
The New York Daily News expressed the same idea on its front page with the blaring headline: "God Isn't Fixing This" coupled with images of tweets about prayers from GOP candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Soon came a backlash from those arguing that gun control advocates were sneering at deeply felt prayers.
Paul tweeted that the newspaper's cover was "deplorable. Genuine thoughts and prayers are not political fodder."
"Prayer is exactly the right immediate response," tweeted Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political consultant. "Belittling praying for victims is odious."
Commentary magazine's Noah Rothman wrote that an "ill-advised impulse to discredit the act of prayer" was an example of "how far removed the left has become from majority opinion in the rest of America."
Separate from the political back and forth, it fell to Catholic priest and blogger Matthew Schneider to tweet his thoughts on the role of prayer for most Americans in such a time of tragedy.
"When a mass shooting happens, all 99 percent of us can do is pray for the victims and their families. #PrayforSanBernadino," Schneider tweeted to his 36,000 followers.
He added, in an interview, "In general, in all of our lives, prayer and action should be complementary." He declined to weigh in on the difficult politics of gun violence.
Most Democrats favor making it harder for people to purchase firearms, while most Republicans oppose the idea. With the GOP running both the House and Senate, leaders have shown no willingness to even hold votes on curbing guns. And the National Rifle Association remains a potent force opposing restrictions.
President Barack Obama opened his remarks on the shooting Thursday by offering, yes, "thoughts and prayers" for those affected by the shooting. But he added that "it's going to be important for all of us — including our legislatures — to see what we can do to make sure that when individuals decide that they want to do somebody harm, we're making it a little harder for them to do it."
Josh Earnest, Obama's press secretary, told reporters: "We've got too many members of Congress who are terrified of the NRA, while too many Americans are terrified of a mass shooting."
During the 2014 election cycle, the NRA and its affiliates spent more than $35 million on campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures and so-called issue ads supporting or opposing candidates, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said Thursday the group had not issued any statement about the San Bernardino shootings. But she pointed out in an email that California has one of the nation's strongest gun control laws, including background checks on all firearms sales and a strict limitation on licenses to carry concealed weapons.
Asked if there was any gun control legislation currently proposed in Congress that the NRA could support, Baker offered no response.