The dual mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend prompted predictable outrage and hand-wringing from Maryland politicians.
But none of the expressions of outrage were more noteworthy than those that have come over the past two days from the Twitter account of state Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr.
The lawmaker represents a rural district on the Eastern Shore. And he also happens to be Senate minority whip — the No. 2 Republican in the chamber.
Hershey’s statements since the shootings have been as pointed as any elected Republican’s — and they seem surprising, because he has been a strong defender of the Second Amendment and hunters’ rights during his nine years in the General Assembly. He also appears to be cautioning fellow Republicans about their reluctance to criticize white supremacists.
Here are some samples:
“I’m done with the thoughts and prayers,” Hershey said in his first tweet on Sunday afternoon. “I’m done with the phony outrage from scores of politicians. I’m angry. I’m horrified. I’m devastated. Our American culture is suffering. Let’s call this what it is: A white nationalist committed an act of terrorism.”
A little later in the day, Hershey wrote, “How many more times are we going to use ‘mental illness’ as the standard response to a mass shooting? That crutch has been worn thin. Here’s what happened in #ElPaso: A guy drove hundreds of miles and committed an act of terrorism. This guy is a hateful white nationalist. Period.”
And later on Sunday, Hershey wrote, “Why are so many politicians afraid to call a spade a spade? White supremacy & white nationalism is on the rise in America. And now it has manifested into mass shootings. A pattern becomes a data point. We know the who, the what & the why; we have to prevent the next when & where.”
On Monday, Hershey tweeted a message directly to President Trump: “Mr. President: The El Paso gunman is a wicked man. He’s also a terrorist and a he’s a white nationalist. The first step in solving any problem is admitting that we have one. We have a white nationalist and white supremacy problem in America. Call it out, @realDonaldTrump”
An hour later, after Trump went on Twitter blaming “fake news” for fanning anger in the country, Hershey felt compelled to reply.
“And politicians have a “big responsibility” not to pass the buck. Unfair media coverage isn’t the culprit of mass shootings,” he wrote.
On Monday afternoon, when The Washington Post linked to a story about an Ohio state legislator who blamed the mass shootings on “drag queen advocates,” Colin Kaepernick and President Obama, Hershey tweeted, “Does this Ohio Republican have a Republican primary challenger — someone who didn’t just teleport from the 1950’s? This kind of rhetoric is embarrassing and disgusting. And damnit, Republicans have got to be better than this. We Republicans need to demand better.”
So what’s going on with Senator Hershey?
In a phone interview Monday from the National Conference of State Legislatures convention in Nashville, Tennessee — where the shootings have been topic A among the hundreds of lawmakers attending from across the country — Hershey said he was moved by personal connections to speak out about recent acts of violence.
“Last year, the event at The Capital hit close to home,” Hershey said, referring to the fatal shooting of five staffers at the Annapolis newspaper, The Capital Gazette, in June 2018.
The senator said he was equally impacted by the shooting rampage last week at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. Hershey, an engineer by trade, said he has spent a total of a year-and-a-half working in Gilroy, building a shopping center there, and has attended the world-famous garlic festival.
“I felt that I wanted to say something,” Hershey said. “We’ve got to find a way to prevent these kinds of events.”
He repeated his tweeted assertion that gun rights advocates and Republicans who blame mental illness for the spate of gun violence around the U.S. are using “a crutch.”
Hershey said several colleagues — Republicans and Democrats — have reached out to him since he began tweeting on the weekend shootings.
“Some have been very forthright and said, ‘thanks for your comments,’” he said. “I’ve also gotten some texts that said, ‘Hey man, thanks a lot. We as Republicans need to stop hiding from these events.’”
Hershey conceded that Republicans can find themselves in an awkward place when it comes to gun safety.
“Obviously, as Republicans, we’re very protective of our Second Amendment, and I’m not trying to do anything to weaken that,” he said. “But we have to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong people.”
On the other hand, Hershey said, Democrats who call for severe restrictions or outright bans on gun use are “naïve.”
Hershey said finding bipartisan solutions to combating gun violence is going to require “hard work.” And while Maryland is ahead of many states when it comes to enacting gun control laws, Hershey said he’d like to see an in-depth study of the comprehensive gun safety laws the state passed under former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) in 2014 (as a general principle, Hershey said he thinks all major state laws should undergo in-depth reviews after five years).
But in a conservative district — which gave almost 66% of the vote to President Trump in 2016 — and in a conservative Senate GOP caucus, could Hershey’s statements in the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton present political problems for him in the future?
Jim Burton, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the state GOP, said Hershey was expressing what most Republicans are thinking since the weekend’s mass shootings.
“There’s no question Republicans are devastated, horrified and angry,” he said. “Nobody in a Republican primary is going to disagree with something like this.”
Burton said he did not believe Hershey faces any kind of political danger because of his extensive tweeting on the subject.
Hershey also professes not to be concerned.
“I don’t worry about those things now,” he said.