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Republican reactions to San Bernardino changed a lot after learning an alleged shooter was Muslim

Ted Cruz addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Ted Cruz addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Republican politicians treat gun violence and terrorism — or at least terrorism they believe is connected to Islamist radicalism — very, very differently. The murder of at least 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday has illustrated that quite vividly.

For the first day or so, the shooting was treated as a mass shooting, and the standard response by pro-gun Republicans after mass shootings is to offer thoughts and prayers to victims, their families, and first responders and to avoid talking about changes in gun laws. Not reacting at all is also an option. Accordingly, the leading Republican candidates for president praised and sympathized with those affected, or else stayed mum:

  • Ted Cruz: "Our prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders in San Bernardino who willingly go into harm’s way to save others."
  • Marco Rubio: No statement on Facebook or either of his Twitter accounts; no press release.
  • Donald Trump: "#TeamTrump. Police and law enforcement seem to have killed one of the California shooters and are in a shootout with the others. Go police."

Then we learned the shooters' names

Burguan's in the center, with a silver shield.
San Bernardino Police Department Chief Jarrod Burguan delivers a statement on Thursday.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But then it emerged that the two shooters were named Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, and that Farook was Muslim. The reactions of the Republican frontrunners suddenly changed:

  • Ted Cruz went back to Twitter to declare the shooting an act of war: "Yesterday's horrific murder in the wake of Paris underscores we're at a time of war whether or not the current Admin realizes it."
  • Marco Rubio, speaking at a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, spoke for the first time about the shootings, and implied they were acts of terrorism: "We don’t know all the facts yet. But we have certainly learned some facts that are concerning and weigh on our minds."
  • Donald Trump, also at the RJC forum, said that the shooting "probably was related … [to] radical Islamic terrorism."

To be clear: Subsequent reporting on Farook's alleged ties to Islamist radicals, and the duo's weapons cache, hadn't been confirmed when these comments were made. The only things we reliably knew were the names of the shooters and Farook's religion. Even as I'm writing this, we still don't know for certain that Farook and Malik intended the shooting as an act of terrorism.

But the GOP field's take on the events flipped entirely. What once was a minor incident to be ignored (in Rubio's case) or treated with "thoughts and prayers" and compliments to police but nothing more (in Cruz and Trump's cases) was now an act of war.

And the field has made it very clear in the past that this particular "war" should be vigorously prosecuted through military means that cost billions of dollars and risk both civilian and service members' lives. Ted Cruz has promised that the US would end the life of any and every ISIS member. Marco Rubio has declared, "This is a clash of civilizations, and either we win, or they win." Donald Trump has said he'd "bomb the shit out of" ISIS and build a "tremendous safe zone in Syria."

How we rank violent deaths

At least 17 people have been injured, in addition to the 14 dead
Jesus Gonzalez and Pastor Ernie Ceballos hug at the site of the shooting on Thursday.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This is the way conversations about violence work in America. When the violence in question is classified as "gun violence," it's acknowledged and then dismissed. It's not treated as a reason for aggressive action. But when the violence in question is "terrorism," massive reaction is the norm.

We shouldn't let Democrats completely off the hook here. They haven't been as eager as Republicans to declare this shooting an act of terrorism, and they do propose policies to combat gun violence (albeit wholly inadequate ones). But their rhetoric sometimes feeds this impression that by being designated as "terrorism," the loss of life magically becomes more significant or more tragic, than "normal" gun deaths. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has declared that she'd offer local authorities "all the resources and support we can give them" to combat terrorism in the US.

The truth is that America's violence problem is about guns, and in particular about gun suicides. Focusing on terrorism to the exclusion of other gun violence, as Cruz, Rubio, and Trump have done, isn't just callous. It suggests a dangerous focus on exactly the wrong problem.

VIDEO: America's gun problem explained in 90 seconds