WASHINGTON – It was an unusual message, coming from an unusual messenger, one who only hours earlier appeared to cast some blame on Democrats for the shooting of the third-ranking House Republican and then vowed to start carrying a gun to protect himself.
Rep. Chris Collins later Wednesday issued a new statement:
"While it is apparent that the shooter was a zealot with an intention to cause harm, it is important that we all be cognizant that our words have strong meaning," the Clarence Republican said. "It’s time for all of us, including myself, to tone down our rhetoric and recognize that we are all of one country and all proud Americans."
The statement proved that a trying day on Capitol Hill was also a humbling one for Collins, a politician known for his brash, I'll-tell-you-what-I'm-thinking-even-if-it hurts demeanor.
"He is going to make a conscious effort to tone it down," said Sarah Minkel, his spokesperson.
The trying day for lawmakers came with the crack of gunfire at a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Va., where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing for its annual contest against Democrats, which will take place at Nationals Park Thursday night.
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House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a well-liked Louisiana Republican, tumbled to the ground, shot in the hip by a former volunteer for the Democratic presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Four others were injured.
Knowing that Scalise and several others were wounded, but not knowing much else about the shooting, Collins went on WBEN radio and rhetorically took aim at Democrats.
"I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric," Collins said on the radio station. "The rhetoric has been outrageous – the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters. Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires."
Saying that political rhetoric was becoming too heated, Collins added: "Maybe this is a wake-up call. I'm not saying it will be. But let's hope we could disagree on a more polite, conversational basis and not do things like what they did at my office a couple weeks ago."
Collins then noted that protesters held a "die-in" at his office to show their opposition to the House Republican health bill.
"It's gone too far," Collins said.
The denizens of Twitter clearly agreed. Many took aim at Collins, noting he's no stranger to inflammatory rhetoric himself.
Some on Twitter noted that while serving as Erie County executive in 2009, Collins saw his dreams of winning the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination disappear after he compared Sheldon Silver, then the Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly, to Hitler. Collins also said Silver might be the anti-Christ. Collins later apologized for the comparisons.
Despite a quick online firestorm over Collins comments' on the Scalise shooting and the Democrats, Collins then went on WKBW and vowed to start carrying his handgun at public events.
"On a rare occasion, I'd have my gun in the glove box or something, but it's going to be in my pocket from this day forward," Collins said.
"I can assure you from this day forward, I have a carry permit, I will be carrying when I'm out and about, which I have to tell you I have not been even though I have a carry permit at home," he added.
Minkel, Collins' spokesperson, later explained that Collins wouldn't be carrying his weapon into any schools or into any other place were it would be illegal for him to do so.
“Congressman Collins has had a gun permit for about 30 years and will continue to carry a weapon in situations where it is legal and appropriate," she said.
He will do that even though he experienced a bit of a change of heart as the hours passed on Wednesday.
Minkel, who said Collins was unavailable for an interview, said: "The Congressman was upset to hear the news about his friend, Whip Steve Scalise, and as the morning progressed he reflected upon the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. The Congressman has made a commitment to tone down his own rhetoric and is encouraging his colleagues to follow suit.”
And Collins did just that in his statement on the shooting, which was similar to those issued by many of his colleagues.
“Today’s attack on Whip Steve Scalise, Members of Congress, the Capitol Police, and congressional aides is absolutely devastating," Collins said. "For those injured, we all send our prayers for a speedy recovery. If it weren’t for the brave men and women of the Capitol Police, this attack would have resulted in an even greater tragedy and I, along with my colleagues, are thankful for their service."
In tone, Collins' statement was in keeping with that of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
“I’ve participated in the Congressional hockey games in the past and these fun-natured annual sporting events foster bipartisan comradery and help raise money for local and national charities," Higgins said. “Our thanks go out to the Capitol Police, who bravely protect members, staff and visitors every day. They saved lives today.”
Higgins gave several interviews Wednesday as well, but none produced the kind of online outrage that erupted after Collins' comments.