Two mass shootings that killed 29 people in less than 24 hours in the United States has prompted debate over whether President Donald Trump’s rhetoric was partly to blame for the surging gun violence.
The first assault occurred on Saturday morning in the border city of El Paso in Texas, where a gunman killed 20 people at a Walmart store before surrendering to the police.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the gun assault appeared to be a hate crime, and police cited a “manifesto” they attributed to the suspect, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, as evidence that the bloodshed was racially motivated.
A four-page statement posted on an online message board and believed to have been written by the suspect, called the Walmart attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”.
John Bash, the US attorney for the Western District of Texas, said federal authorities were treating the shooting as a case of “domestic terrorism“, and a state prosecutor said they would seek the death penalty for the suspect.
Across the country, a second gunman dressed in body armour opened fire in a central district of Dayton, Ohio, early on Sunday, killing nine people and wounding at least 27 others.
The suspected attacker was shot dead by responding officers.
Assistant Police Chief Matt Carper identified the suspect as 24-year-old Connor Betts, a white male from Bellbrook, Ohio, and said his sister Megan Betts, 22, was among those killed.
The motive behind the shooting was not immediately clear.
‘No place for hate’
As the country stood aghast over its latest spasm of gun violence, Trump ordered for flags to be flown at half-mast for five days. He told reporters on Sunday that “hate has no place in our country”, but also blamed mental illness for the violence.
“We have to get it stopped. This has been going on for years … and years in our country,” he said, without offering specifics.
But critics hit hard at Trump, with several Democratic presidential candidates saying his language against minorities and migrants promotes racial division and violence.
“Donald Trump is responsible for this. He is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry,” Senator Cory Booker, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, said he believed Trump was a white nationalist whose anti-immigrant rhetoric stoked divisions.
“Let’s be very clear about what is causing this and who the president is,” O’Rourke said on CNN. “He is an open avowed racist and is encouraging more racism in this country.”
US Senator Bernie Sanders also took Trump to task. “We must come together as a nation to reject this dangerous and growing culture of bigotry espoused by Trump and his allies,” he said late on Saturday.
The White House cannot shirk its responsibility in shaping the public discourse, said Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. “There’s no question that white nationalism is condoned at the highest levels of our government,” he told Fox News Sunday.
“He’s spoken about immigrants as being invaders. He’s given licence for this toxic brew of white supremacy to fester more and more in this country, and we’re seeing the results of that,” presidential candidate Julian Castro, the former Democratic mayor of San Antonio, said on ABC’s This Week.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a major civil rights group, said in a statement: “To pretend that [Trump’s] administration and the hateful rhetoric it spreads doesn’t play a role in the kind of violence that we saw yesterday in El Paso is ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst.”
Scott Lucas, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, also held Trump responsible.
“I think we need to be honest and say that the man in the White House and other politicians, when they use anti-migrant language, when they use language that targets those of a different colour or a different religion, they don’t put the guns in the shooter’s hands, but they provide the excuses for those guns to be used,” he told Al Jazeera.
“So it’s not enough to simply condemn bigotry, there needs to be responsible action by all politicians and if they are not responsible, they need to be called out as accomplices.”
Critics have also denounced Trump for referring to migrants trying to enter through the US southern border as an “invasion”, as well as his refusal to explicitly condemn the far-right demonstrators at a violent 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was also accused of racism when he called for four young members of Congress, all women of colour, to “go back” to their countries of origin.
But Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, rebutted the Democrats’ allegations, attributing the shootings to “sick” individuals.
“There’s no benefit here in trying to make this a political issue, this is a social issue and we need to address it as that,” he said on ABC’s This Week.
The Republican mayor of El Paso seemed to discount any race element to the Texas shooting, saying the gunman was disturbed.
“He was deranged, he was evil … Pure evil as far as I can characterise it,” Dee Margo told Fox News.
The attacks in Texas and Ohio came less than a week after a 19-year-old gunman killed three people and injured 13 others at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival in California before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.