WASHINGTON – New signs emerged Monday of an evolving U.S. gun law debate, with several top lawmakers appearing more open to stiffening controls on firearms after the Connecticut school massacre that left 20 children dead.
Rising demands for stricter gun control laws, in a nation where bearing arms is a constitutional right, came a day after President Barack Obama told grieving relatives of 26 people killed Friday that such tragedies “must end.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat with a progun reputation, said lawmakers will this week begin debate on how to “change laws and culture.”
Reid did not mention outright whether the chamber would consider new legislation to ban certain assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as has been proposed by prominent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who once blasted away at a copy of proposed global warming legislation with a gun in a political ad, also seemed to sense a shift “Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered,” he said on MSNBC, sketching over the fact that thousands of U.S. kids have been killed in gun-related violence.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising star in his party and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also appeared ready to take another look at current gun laws and restrictions. Rubio spokesman Alex Conant was quoted by the Hill website as saying that his boss, while remaining a supporter of the right to bear arms, wanted to see a “serious and comprehensive study of our laws to find new and better ways to prevent any more mass shootings.”
Any legislative push would likely face a major challenge from lobby groups such as the NRA, which has yet to comment on the killings, and political momentum could ebb as memories of the massacre fade.
The White House said stricter gun laws were part of the solution, but not the only one, and also pointed to better mental health education and treatment.
“I don’t have a series of proposals to present to you,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, when pressed by reporters to explain what the president had meant during his tender eulogy for the slain children.
“I will simply point you to what the president said last night about moving forward in the coming weeks. I would look for him to do that.”
Carney did say that Obama still backs an extension by Congress of a ban on assault weapons, which lapsed in 2004, and could cover the kind of semiautomatic rifle used by gunman Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut.
He described the slaughter as “exceptional in its horrendousness” and said that the answer to halting similar killings was “complex” and required more than gun laws and legislation.
That could be a hint that Obama will pursue attempts to broaden mental health coverage alongside new gun laws, amid concerns that people with unstable psychological conditions find it too easy to get guns.
In New York however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg demanded immediate action to limit the approximately 30,000 deaths caused by firearms in America every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Last night, the president said he would use whatever powers his office holds to address this violence. It is critical that he do so,” Bloomberg said.
“Words alone cannot heal our nation, only action can do that,” he said, urging Congress to impose a criminal background check for all gun sales, to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines and make gun trafficking a felony.