Sen. Joe Manchin, an avid hunter and lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, says it's time for all sides in the gun policy debate to move beyond the political rhetoric and begin an honest discussion about reasonable restrictions on guns.
The school shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 children has changed the dialogue, Manchin said, adding that he agrees with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has advocated banning the sale of assault weapons.
The comments by the West Virginia Democrat came on the morning of the first funerals for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students killed Friday. Investigators say Adam Lanza shot his way into the school and opened fire on a first grade class, stopping only when he heard the police. Lanza, described as troubled by family members, then shot himself. He had killed his mother before heading to the school. Investigators are still searching for the reason behind the rampage.
The massacre renewed calls from some Democrats on Sunday for a ban on military-style assault weapons and a look at how the nation deals with individuals suffering from serious mental illness.
President Barack Obama traveled to Newtown, Conn., Sunday night to console the grieving families, the fourth such trip he's had to make during his presidency. He vowed to use "whatever power this office holds" to safeguard the nation's children, raising the prospect he will pursue policy changes to stem gun violence.
Gun control was a hot topic in the early 1990s, when Congress enacted a 10-year ban on assault weapons. But since that ban expired in 2004, few Americans have wanted stricter laws and politicians say they don't want to become targets of a powerful gun-rights lobby.
"This is bigger than just about guns," Manchin said. "It's about how we treat people with mental illness, how we intervene, how we get them the care they need, how we protect our schools. It's just so sad."
Manchin, who had been hunting with his family over the weekend, said gun rights advocates have been concerned about the erosion of the Second Amendment right to bear and keep arms, "taking guns away and people not allowed to have them. That's not what this should be about. Millions and millions of people are proud gun owners and they do it responsibly and by the law."
But the self-described "proud outdoorsman and hunter" said, "I don't know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle, I don't know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting."
Manchin is the most prominent gun rights advocate to speak publicly in the wake of the shooting. He made his comments on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. It's never happened in America that I can recall, seeing this carnage," Manchin said. "Anybody that's a proud gun owner, a proud member of the NRA, they're also proud parents, they're proud grandparents. They understand this has changed where we go from here."
By MICHELE SALCEDO Associated Press