WASHINGTON — The political accusations started flying just hours after the bullets did.
Some on the right wasted no time blaming their political opponents for the shooting Wednesday morning at a practice of congressional Republicans’ baseball team, saying Democrats’ harsh anti-Donald Trump rhetoric had created a political culture of violence that inspired alleged shooter James Hodgkinson.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed a "pattern" of "increasing hostility on the left" in an appearance on Fox News, prompting the host to press him on whether it was appropriate to be making such charges at such a time.
“You’ve had a series of things, which sends signals that tell people that it’s OK to hate Trump. It’s OK think of Trump in violent terms. It’s OK to consider assassinating Trump and then ... suddenly we’re supposed to rise above it — until the next time?” Gingrich responded.
Investigators said it’s too early to understand Hodgkinson’s motives. And leaders in both parties called for calm and bipartisan unity, with members of the Democratic baseball team inviting their Republican counterparts to dinner Wednesday night ahead of Thursday’s game, which will go ahead as planned.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-NC, told NBC News that it appeared the "gunman was there to kill as many Republican members as possible” — a comment that was quickly splashed across the top of the Drudge Report, Breitbart News, and other conservative outlets.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-IL, who was at the bat when shots rang out in Alexandria, Virginia, warned on CNN, “This could be the first political rhetorical terrorist attack.”
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway stoked the narrative on Twitter, as did Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, retweeting a tweet from a conservative commentator that connected the shooting to a controversial new production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” In the production, Caesar, who is assassinated on stage, is portrayed in a way meant to invoke Trump.
Others on the right linked the shooting to comedian Kathy Griffin, who was fired from CNN's New Year's Eve special for posing with a fake severed and bloody Trump head. She later apologized.
“Today's shooter was a hard core Lefty, a big Bernie fan,” controversial former GOP Rep. Joe Walsh said on Twitter. “Too much hate on the left. Way too much. It's dangerous.”
In many ways, it’s a reversal of what liberals often did during the Obama administration — reaching to tie acts of political violence to the Tea Party and the GOP.
Among Democrats, some were quick on Wednesday to use the incident to call for new gun restrictions opposed by many in the GOP.
"I think we need to do more to protect all of our citizens. I have long advocated — this is not what today is about — but there are too many guns on the street," Virginia Gov. Terry Mcauliffe said at a press conference with local authorities in Alexandria. "It’s not just about politicians. We worry about this every day for all of our citizens."
Democratic State Rep. Mark Levine, who represents Alexandria, let his voice rise as he ticked through the gun control legislation that Republicans have blocked in the Virginia General Assembly.
"Bomb the terrorists in Syria, arm the terrorists in Virginia — that's their policy," Levine said of Republicans after they killed a bill he introduced to bar people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.
Virginia has experienced a number of high-profile shootings in recent years, and Levin said he has little hope the latest one would move Republicans.
Gun-control activists had planned to protest a hearing in Congress Wednesday on making gun silencers easier to acquire, but the meeting was canceled after the shooting.
Hodgkinson, a former home inspector from Illinois, volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in Iowa and wrote letters to the editor of his local newspaper condemning Republicans.
Sanders went to the Senate floor Wednesday to condemn Hodgkinson, saying, “I am sickened by this despicable act.”
And Robert Becker, who ran Sanders’ presidential campaign in Iowa, told NBC News that Hodgkinson did not play any meaningful role in the campaign.
"I’ve talked to everyone that worked for us in the Quad Cities area. Nobody remembers the guy. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t come in a day or two and knock on some doors for us, but he didn’t stand out,” Becker said. "I can’t denounce him strong enough for what he did.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY, the first congressman to endorse Trump during last year’s presidential primary, told local station WKBW that Democrats’ “outrageous” rhetoric can incite violence.
"You fuel the fires ... some people react to things like that," Collins later told radio station WBEN.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Nancy Pelosi struck the opposite note, saying they were all part of the same “family” and needed to come together.
Ironically, the congressional baseball game, in which Republicans and Democrats play against each other to raise money for charity, is one of the few bipartisan traditions left in Washington.
“There are just very few opportunities for us to interact outside our suits,” lamented Rep. Mike Doyle, D-PA, who manages the Democratic team, as he stood next to Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, who manages the GOP team.
The two were a picture of bipartisan bonhomie at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, playfully ribbing each other’s pitching abilities and recalling a time on the Hill when members could get together outside work more often and before social media helped coarsen the political discourse.
"It shouldn’t take a moment like this to bring us together,” Doyle said.