Manchin, Tomblin both open to changing gun laws
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Two of West Virginia's most powerful pro-gun politicians say they are now open to either banning or tightening restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity gun clips following Friday's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, both Democrats who have earned "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association, said Monday they now favor increased restrictions on high-capacity guns.
Manchin's change ignited the political world Monday, a day after President Barack Obama made a wrenching national speech to suggest he would back new gun controls.
Liberals latched onto Manchin's statements, which he made first in an early-morning TV interview and then again and again throughout the day Monday in interviews, a statement and a conference call with reporters.
In doing so, Manchin became the first NRA-backed senator to call for a reassessment of gun laws.
Republicans called Manchin nothing more than a political opportunist.
Manchin - an avid hunter - said the bloody school shooting led him to reexamine his position.
The shooting left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Police say the gunman, Adam Lanza, was carrying an arsenal of ammunition and used a high-powered AR-15 style rifle similar to the military's M-16.
"I never thought I'd ever be talking to you all about the day 20 6- and 7-year-olds were slaughtered," Manchin, D-W.Va., said during a press conference call Monday afternoon.
"It's changed me - it's changed all of us," he said.
Manchin now says he would like to see a "responsible, sensible" national debate about the future of gun policy and about how the country deals with mental health issues and violence in the media.
He said he still believes in honoring traditional Second Amendment values but lawmakers should not be afraid to consider a nationwide assault weapons ban or limits on how many bullets a gun can fire before being reloaded.
"Everything should be on the table," Manchin said.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who also hold NRA A ratings, said they were trying to figure out the best way for the nation to prevent a repeat of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who supported the 10-year assault weapons ban enacted in 1994, said Monday it was time to bring back the rule.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also said the nation needs to improve access to mental health services and implement better oversight of violent media geared toward children.
The mass shooting of innocent children has sparked an emotional public debate on the nation's gun laws.
While most of the response would come on the federal level, states also have power to regulate firearms beyond.
Tomblin said in a statement that lawmakers are not facing an issue of gun rights, but rather an issue of public safety.
"As an outdoorsman, I have always supported rights for our hunters and have a long history of enforcing our laws that give us the freedom to protect ourselves and to bear arms," Tomblin said.
"These core principles, however, should not prevent us from debating and putting reasonable restrictions on assault weapons and magazines capable of carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition."
But it's not clear what the governor was calling for or if he planned to do anything to advance legislation at the state level.
For instance, Tomblin's call for restrictions on "magazines capable of carrying hundreds of rounds" may not mean very much. A large-capacity "drum magazine" that could hold up to 100 bullets was used by the shooter in this year's Colorado movie theater shooting, authorities said. But 30 and 33-round magazines were used in Friday's school shooting and at the mass shooting in 2011 that left former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords grievously wounded, according to authorities.
Asked to clarify Tomblin's statement, a spokeswoman did not respond.
From 1994 to 2004, the U.S. did ban gun magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Gun control advocates have pushed for reinstating those restrictions.
Manchin did not say if he agreed with that, but he said he was willing to consider them even if it might cost him favor among West Virginia's traditional pro-gun electorate.
"I'm not afraid to say let's talk about that," he said. "I'm not afraid of the political ramifications of taking a responsible position."
Manchin, who had just returned from a family hunting trip, said he still honored long-standing West Virginia traditions of safely using guns for hunting and sport.
Manchin said he had never hunted with anyone who needed an assault rifle or clip containing more than three rounds to kill an animal. Still, a picture posted in 2009 by a gun industry website shows Manchin, then West Virginia's governor, with a gun the website identified as an AR-15, the kind of rifle authorities said was used in Friday's school shooting.
Manchin said the country needed to find a balance between recognizing safe use of traditional firearms while restricting high-power weapons designed primarily for military use.
"I will defend Second Amendment rights so long as I live," he said. "But I also believe there's a responsible, sensible way we should be conducting ourselves."
When asked whether the tragedy had led him to rethink his positions, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., responded with a statement saying Congress needed to take action.
"I think all of us woke up to a different nation Saturday morning," Rahall said.
"The circumstances of this tragedy are so horrible that it demands aggressive action," he said. "Our state and nation share a collective desire to try to find some way to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, and, God forbid, from happening in our own communities."
Rahall did not say exactly what action should be taken. He said he wanted to hear from all sides.
"Let us act deliberately, but for the sake of too many already lost, let us act," he said.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said in a statement that there was "no question that Friday's devastating shootings will ignite a debate."
Capito, also A-rated by the NRA, did not comment on specifics but said lawmakers should put politics aside as they move forward.
"As legislators, it is our duty to facilitate thoughtful policy discussions in the aftermath of such a tragedy, regardless of political positions," Capito said.
"As a mother of three and grandmother to one, I certainly have serious concerns as to how someone capable of such mass murder was able to get his hands on an assault weapon and murder 26 innocent people," she said.
In a statement Monday, Rockefeller said the Newtown murders were the latest reminder that the country has not done enough to get dangerous weapons off the streets.
"Too many young lives have been taken from us too soon, and Friday's unspeakable actions are another stark wakeup call that we must do more," he said. "This is not the time for soft words and empty promises, but a call for strong action."
Rockefeller said the failure to renew the assault weapons ban in 2004 was "unacceptable." Contrary to critics, he said the ban did not go against traditional pro-gun values.
"West Virginia has a proud hunting tradition and respect for the Second Amendment," Rockefeller said. "But most hunters I talk with know that prohibiting the use of military-grade weapons or clips that can fire dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds will not impact those traditions, nor do they have a place on our streets."
Rockefeller, Manchin, Rahall and Capito also said the debate needs to be expanded to cover matters of mental health and violence in media.
"We've got to reevaluate where we are as a society," Manchin said.
"As a lifelong defender of the Second Amendment, I believe that gun safety is essential, but so is addressing the gaps in our mental health system and the issue of drugs and violence in our culture and prayer in our schools," Rahall said.
Manchin's statements prompted reporter questions about his use of a hunting rifle to shoot President Barack Obama's cap-and-trade bill in his now-infamous "Dead Aim" 2010 campaign ad.
Manchin defended that ad Monday.
"We used it in the most responsible manner," he said. "I don't think that that glorified anything."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.