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Memo reveals a House Republican strategy on shootings: downplay white nationalism, blame left

The GOP memo falsely pinned the El Paso massacre and other notable mass shootings on the left.
Published Aug. 16, 2019
Updated Aug. 19, 2019

Congressional Republicans recently circulated talking points on gun violence that falsely described the El Paso massacre and other mass shootings as “violence from the left.”

A document obtained by the Tampa Bay Times and sent by House Republicans provides a framework for how to respond to anticipated questions like, “Why won’t you pass legislation to close the ‘gun show loophole’ in federal law?” and “Why shouldn’t we ban high-capacity magazines?" The answers are boilerplate Republican arguments against tougher gun restrictions.

But it also included this question: “Do you believe white nationalism is driving more mass shootings recently?” The suggested response is to steer the conversation away from white nationalism to an argument that implies both sides are to blame.

RELATED STORY: Florida’s response to El Paso, Dayton shootings: More of the same

“White nationalism and racism are pure evil and cannot be tolerated in any form," the document said. “We also can’t excuse violence from the left such as the El Paso shooter, the recent Colorado shooters, the Congressional baseball shooter, Congresswoman Giffords’ shooter and Antifa."

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, included the talking points in a newsletter that he emailed this week to his Florida constituents. His spokeswoman Summer Robertson said they were “provided by the House Republican Conference," the caucus arm in charge of devising messaging strategy for its members. The conference’s internal strategies are not usually made public.

Robertson said that the inclusion of El Paso was a mistake. It was supposed to say Dayton, the site of a second mass shooting 13 hours later where nine people died.

The El Paso shooter is alleged to have intentionally targeted Mexicans when he killed 22 people at a Walmart on the Texas-Mexico border on Aug. 3. In a manifesto published just before the attack he expressed white nationalist and anti-immigrant beliefs, using language that echoed President Donald Trump’s characterizations of illegal immigration.

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The Dayton Daily News reported that the shooter in Ohio had attended a protest of a Ku Klux Klan rally and other outlets have reported his political leanings aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist. The motivations of the Dayton shooters killing spree, though, are less clear. He reportedly was obsessed with violence and once made a list of girls he wanted to kill. In the rampage, he fatally wounded his sibling.

The GOP conference talking points ascribed other shootings as leftist violence despite ambiguous, if not contradictory, evidence. The shooter that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat, was paranoid about government and obsessed with the Arizona Congresswoman, a law enforcement investigation found. His political persuasions were mixed and did not appear to be a factor. Nor does it seem that the May shooters at a Colorado high school — both teenagers and bullied students — were motivated by politics.

Republicans have faced mounting pressure from Democrats, victims of gun violence and cities shaken by these tragedies who are demanding Congress take action. The GOP’s response to elevate incidents of “violence on the left" clashes with a well-documented rise in hate crimes and white nationalism on the far-right.

Extremist-related murders have spiked in the last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and the vast majority — 73 percent — are committed by right-wing extremists and white supremacists. Not a single extremist-related murder in the United States last year was carried out by “the left."

FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence."

The office of Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming lawmaker who chairs the Republican conference, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We have sadly seen violence from ideological extremists on both sides and that is completely unacceptable and must be condemned,” Robertson said. “Congressman Bilirakis has always been clear that he denounces bigotry and hate speech, regardless of its source, including from white nationalists.”

Images of a printout of an email sent by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis on Aug. 11 that included talking points on gun violence circulated by the U.S. House Republican Conference.
Images of a printout of an email sent by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis on Aug. 11 that included talking points on gun violence circulated by the U.S. House Republican Conference.
Images of a printout of an email sent by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis on Aug. 11 that included talking points on gun violence circulated by the U.S. House Republican Conference.
Images of a printout of an email sent by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis on Aug. 11 that included talking points on gun violence circulated by the U.S. House Republican Conference.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated because of conflicting media accounts about the Dayton shooter’s sibling.

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