The White House said Monday that the racially motivated mass shooting in upstate New York is “another vivid reminder” of the need to prevent hate-driven terrorism, as President Biden prepared to visit Buffalo in the wake of a tragedy that symbolizes his oft-repeated reason for seeking the White House in 2020.
Mr. Biden and first lady Jill Biden will focus on consoling the families of victims, but concerns about racial extremism will loom over the visit on Tuesday.
Eleven of the 13 victims in Saturday’s grocery store shooting were Black, and an 18-year-old White man accused in the shooting ranted in a 180-page document about race and the “great replacement” theory, which holds that non-White people are infiltrating America to wipe out Whites and diminish their political influence.
Complicating the president’s message about what he called “repugnant White nationalist ideology” is another apparently racially motivated shooting at a church in California over the weekend. In that case, a Chinese immigrant killed one and wounded five because of his reported hatred of Taiwanese people.
The FBI said it has opened a hate crime investigation in the California shooting.
Mr. Biden indicated in his initial statement on the Buffalo shooting that his response will focus on ideology and not just efforts to rein in guns.
“Hate must not have a safe harbor. This is something that the president says very often, especially in these horrific incidents that we have seen time and time again,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We’re going to continue to call this out.”
Ms. Jean-Pierre declined to condemn Republicans or specific people for spreading the replacement theory or fueling hatred. She said it “doesn’t matter who it is.”
“This is not about politics. This is about people’s lives,” she said. “It’s about making sure that we’re doing everything we can [to] uproot this evil that we’re seeing. That’s what the president is going to continue to do.”
Still, Democrats, their allies and at least one prominent Republican said the Buffalo shooting followed a pattern of mass shootings from Pittsburgh to El Paso, Texas, and that Republican lawmakers were guilty of inflaming White people’s fears in an increasingly diverse America.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican condemned Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona earlier this year for participating in the America First Political Action Conference organized by a known White nationalist, Nick Fuentes. The rebuke came after a period of silence and did not include any formal censure.
“House GOP leadership has enabled White nationalism, White supremacy and antisemitism,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican who was ousted from her leadership position after feuds over former President Donald Trump. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”
Insinuations and outright headlines about a link between Republican rhetoric and the shooting sparked a vociferous pushback from Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican. She condemned the “sickening and false reporting” claiming that she promoted the replacement theory in Facebook ads last year.
The reports cited September ads that said a liberal amnesty plan for 11 million immigrants “will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
Ms. Stefanik’s team said the ads ran in the context of New York City’s granting of voting rights to illegal immigrants and were strictly about immigration policy and well-documented estimates of how a 2013 immigration reform plan would have affected the electorate.
“Congresswoman Stefanik has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement. She opposes mass amnesty for illegal immigrants and Joe Biden’s wide-open border,” said Alex deGrasse, a senior adviser to the Stefanik campaign.
Ms. Stefanik said the nation is “heartbroken” by the loss of life in Buffalo.
“As a New Yorker, I am praying for the entire community and loved ones. It is a tragic reminder, as we begin National Police Week, that we must particularly thank and honor our law enforcement and first responders who continue to face skyrocketing violent crimes across the nation,” she said.
Police said the suspect in Saturday’s shooting, Payton S. Gendron, traveled across New York from a small town near Binghamton to target minorities in Buffalo.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia told CNN that Mr. Gendron, who surrendered to police, had planned to travel to a second location to continue his attack.
“He was going to get in his car and continue to drive down Jefferson Avenue and continue doing the same thing,” Mr. Gramaglia said.
Mr. Gendron faced a mental health evaluation last June after mentioning at his high school that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide, though he told law enforcement it was a joke.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday that authorities have yet to determine whether the shooting constitutes an act of domestic terrorism.
“It is being investigated, as the FBI articulated, as a hate crime,” Mr. Mayorkas said at the White House. “The term ‘domestic terrorism’ is a legal term, and because the investigation is ongoing, I won’t employ that term.”
The Buffalo shooting follows a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 by a White man who accused Jews of bringing immigrant “invaders” to the U.S. In 2019, a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso after complaining of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Mr. Biden said he was motivated to run for president and fight for America’s “soul” after alt-right groups descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 for marches that turned deadly in clashes with counterprotesters. At one point, torch-carrying protesters chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
An Associated Press-NORC poll this month found that 32% of adults agree that a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains. A similar share, 29%, had concerns that an increase in immigration is leading to native-born Americans losing economic, political and cultural influence.
“The White supremacist gunman, whose name we refuse to state, was responsible for yesterday’s massacre. But make no mistake about the through-line between his unhinged actions and vile beliefs and the ongoing mainstreaming of White nationalism and the ‘replacement’ and ‘invasion’ rhetoric from right-wing media and the Republican Party,” said Zachary Mueller, political director for America’s Voice, an organization that supports immigration reform.
“Buffalo joins the litany of terrorist attacks committed by White nationalists in Charlottesville, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, at a synagogue in Poway, and a Walmart in El Paso. We have no illusions that [Saturday’s] killings will change the course of the Republican Party and the right-wing media ecosystem any more than those previous attacks did.”
Claims of political motivations for mass shootings are not limited to the left. In 2017, a former volunteer for Sen. Bernard Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign shot four people during a Republican congressional baseball practice, seriously wounding then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
Mr. Sanders went to the Senate floor hours after the shooting to say the attack left him “sickened.”
Saturday’s tragedy was one of several major shootings across the country.
Authorities said the Chinese immigrant who opened fire at a California church was motivated by hate of Taiwanese people. Officials have identified the suspect as David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, another Democrat, said it was “well past time for Congress to step up and pass real nationwide gun safety legislation.” He cited additional shootings at a flea market in Houston and spots around Milwaukee.
“As it pertains to Buffalo, cue the hurried backpedaling from the right-wing politicians who’ve so openly peddled the garbage ‘replacement conspiracy’ and who can’t possibly believe that the words they’ve rotted our civic dialogue with could actually come home to roost,” Mr. Murphy tweeted.
The Democrats’ decision to put the threat of White nationalism alongside the availability of guns, which typically consumes the political debate after mass shootings, “makes a good deal of sense,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University.
“Gun control is connected to a constitutional issue that gives it less of an edge than White nationalism,” he said. “The Democrats think it’s profitable to rally their base against White nationalism and especially the use of such terms as ‘legacy Americans,’ a term that is likely to cause many people who are not Mayflower descendants to recoil. White nationalism is scarier to many people than guns, and the Democrats will try to hang it on Republicans like a price tag.”
• Joseph Clark contributed to this report.