(Bloomberg) -- Gun control, a sleeper issue so far in the race to replace Donald Trump, rose to the forefront after a pair of mass shootings, fueling fresh criticism from 2020 candidates over Trump’s rhetoric and new calls for a national leader who will work to stop such massacres.
Democrats -- including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and Julian Castro -- responded to Saturday’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, that killed at least 20 people by blaming Trump for encouraging racial animus that led to violence.
A separate incident early Sunday in Dayton, Ohio, that left the suspected shooter and at least nine others dead shows the need for new gun-control measures and a commander-in-chief who seeks to heal, not exploit, divisions, they said.
The topic of gun control, and demand for action, springs up most loudly after mass shootings and typically ebbs after a few days as Americans who live far from the violence move on with their lives. The one candidate who made gun control the central issue of his campaign, Representative Eric Swalwell, was the first to drop out.
But the remaining White House hopefuls, not only angered by the violence and death but also seeing an opportunity to tie it to Republicans’ opposition to gun control and to Trump’s harsh rhetoric, brought the issue back to center stage on Sunday.
“We can’t fix a problem if we refuse to name it: white nationalism,” Biden, the former vice president, said on Twitter. “An ideology emboldened by a president who stokes the flames of hatred and coddles white supremacists with messages of support. We must do what Trump won’t: condemn this evil and eradicate it from our society.”
Trump, who spent the weekend at his golf club in New Jersey, told reporters before returning to Washington Sunday that he’s spoken with Attorney General William Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray, the governors of Texas and Ohio, and that “a lot of things are in the works.” He didn’t elaborate but said he would be making a statement Monday morning.
The president said “we have done much more than most administrations” about gun violence but “perhaps more has to be done.”
“This has been going on for years, for years and years in our country, and we have to get it stopped,” he said. Trump also issued tweets condemning the shootings, offered thoughts and prayers for those affected, and ordered that flags be flown at half-staff. He told reporters that mental illness is a problem but that “hate has no place in our country. And we’re going to take care of it.”
Democrats have criticized Trump on the campaign trail and in debates for verbal attacks on Democratic New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other freshman lawmakers of color -- which drew chants of “send them back” at a Trump rally in North Carolina last month, echoing the sentiments expressed in a Trump tweet.
“A few weeks after he announced his 2020 re-election bid, there was he indulging and entertaining this ‘Send her back’ chant,” Castro said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Candidates have also taken Trump to task for a multi-day attack on Representative Elijah Cummings, an African-American Democrat from Maryland, and the majority-black city of Baltimore as somewhere “no human being” would want to live.
The shootings in El Paso, where authorities are investigating a possible link to an anti-immigrant document that surfaced online about the time of the killings, and in Dayton, where a gunman in body armor opened fire in a popular nightlife district, are sparking even more pointed criticism of the president.
Asked on ABC whether he’s suggesting that Trump bears responsibility for what happened in El Paso, O’Rourke, who represented the border city in Congress, said, “I am, because he does.”
“If we just accept this as a natural disaster, just what our fate and our fortune and our future is in this country, we will get more of the same,” O’Rourke said. “So in addition to sensible gun policies -- and we must adopt and sign those into law -- we also need to connect the dots on this hatred and racism that is coming from the highest positions of power in this country.”
There’s no question that white nationalism is “condoned at the highest levels of our government,” Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is part of a climate where people who are in the grip of this hateful extremist ideology feel validated and they feel validated from all the way at the top.”
Booker, a New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark, said Trump is “sowing the seeds of hatred” with his comments about minorities and talk about immigrants in terms of “invasions and infestations.”
“We have a president who is responsible, who is not taking that responsibility, and is doing nothing to address the deepening crisis in our country of this kind of violence,” Booker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Kamala Harris told reporters in Las Vegas that Trump’s “words have consequences.”
“The responsibility of being president of the United States is the responsibility of elevating public discourse, of challenging us to rise to our best selves, to speak to our better angels,” she said, calling the El Paso shooting an “act of domestic terrorism.”
The senator and former California attorney general also said on CNN that universal background checks are needed, along with a renewal of the assault weapons ban.
Other candidates are also demanding that Congress enact stricter gun-control measures, and cancel the traditional August recess to work on them.
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights group, expressed “deepest sympathies” to families of the victims but said it “will not participate in the politicizing” of the shootings. “We will work in good faith to pursue real solutions that protect us all from people who commit these horrific acts,” the group said in a tweet.
While the El Paso shooter bears ultimate responsibility for his actions, Trump has chosen to divide people instead of bringing them together as most presidents would, said Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and President Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“As our national leader, you have a role to play in either fanning the flames of division or trying to bring Americans of different backgrounds together,” Castro said on ABC.
“Most presidents have chosen to try and bring people together. This president very early on made a clear choice to divide people for his own political benefit, and these are some of the consequences that we’re seeing of that.”
‘Act of Cowardice’
In a series of tweets, Trump called the El Paso killings “an act of cowardice,” saying there are “no reasons or excuses that will ever justify killing innocent people.” He also asked for prayers for the people of Dayton and ordered flags lowered at public buildings.
While Trump supported a federal ban on bump stocks, devices that allow a semi-automatic weapon to fire like a machine gun, after a massacre at a Las Vegas concert in October 2017, he’s also campaigned as a strong defender of Second Amendment gun rights.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said it’s unfair to blame Trump for the actions of “sick, sick people” and a societal “cancer” that pre-dated the administration. Mulvaney asked whether Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez should be blamed for various acts of violence that occurred after their comments.
“The people responsible here are the people who pull the trigger,” Mulvaney said on ABC. “We need to figure out how to create less of those kinds of people as a society and not trying to figure out who gets blamed going into the next election.”
(Updates with NRA comment under Base Instincts subheadline.)
--With assistance from Hailey Waller and Emma Kinery.
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