WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A growing number of U.S. lawmakers - including a leading pro-gun senator - called on Monday for a look at curbing assault weapons like the one used in a massacre at a Connecticut grade school, a sign that attitudes toward gun control could be shifting.
Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who has earned top marks from the gun industry, said Congress and weapons makers should come together on a “sensible, reasonable approach” to curbing rifles like the one used in the killings Friday of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
A hunter and member of the National Rifle Association, Manchin said the availability of such high-powered weapons does not make sense and called on the gun lobby group to cooperate with a reform of the nation’s gun laws.
A 10-year U.S. ban on assault weapons expired in 2004.
“We’ve got to sit down. I ask all my friends at NRA - and I‘m a proud NRA member and always have been - we need to sit down and move this dialogue to a sensible, reasonable approach to fixing it,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
“Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. This never happened in America, that I can recall, ever seeing this kind of carnage,” said Manchin, an avid hunter who once ran a campaign ad showing him firing a rifle at an environmental bill. “This has changed where we go from here.”
The NRA, which gave Manchin its top rating and endorsed him in his two runs for the Senate, has been influential against limiting gun sales and has succeeded in loosening restrictions on some high-powered combat weapons intended for military use.
There has been little word from Republican lawmakers, who are traditionally strong gun rights advocates, since the attacks, and widespread reports across the country of higher gun sales during the weekend by those worried about a crackdown.
David Gregory, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” said on Sunday the talk show had invited all 31 “pro-gun” senators to appear, but all 31 declined.
Republican congressional leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Residents of Newtown on Monday held the first two of 20 funerals of children shot to death in their classroom.
Police said Adam Lanza was armed with hundreds of bullets in high-capacity magazines of about 30 rounds each for a Bushmaster AR 15 rifle, the assault weapon he used on the children and staff, and two handguns he carried into the school. He had a fourth weapon, a shotgun, in his car outside.
Lanza, 20, killed his mother at home earlier in the day and then shot himself at the school, police said.
The rampage is the latest in a string of mass shootings nationwide that have prompted little movement toward addressing the availability of weapons in the United States and the country’s relatively lax gun laws.
U.S. President Barack Obama called on Sunday for the country to change its approach to violence but did not use the word “gun.” The White House said on Monday gun control is part but not the entire answer to address the violence in the United States.
A January 2011 mass shooting that almost killed a member of Congress, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and killed some of her constituents, had not prompted change. But the targeting of children aged 6 and 7 may have shifted attitudes.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Monday said that more than half of Americans believe the Newtown shootings reflect broader problems in society and not an isolated act of a troubled person - more than after other shooting incidents.
The survey also found that 54 percent of Americans - a five-year high - favor stricter gun control laws in general, and 59 percent support a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, also a Democrat, said he would call a hearing on gun control next year by the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said Congress ”has ducked a serious national debate over common-sense gun laws for too long“ and must act ensure to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill.”
Gillibrand, a friend of Giffords once seen as a pro-gun Democrat, has backed tighter regulation on guns in recent years.
“We should be able to agree that no American should have access to the high-capacity ammunition clips made for our military,” Gillibrand wrote in an editorial in the New York Daily News on Monday. “We should be able to agree on closing the gun-show loophole and banning military-style weapons that have no recreational sports use.”
A handful of Other pro-gun Democrats showed signs of willingness to consider strengthening gun regulations as well.
John Yarmuth, a U.S. representative from Kentucky, apologized for not having spoken out before. “I have been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years, and I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy,” he said in a statement.
Representatives for the National Rifle Association did not return a request for comment. The lobby group has no statement on the school shooting on its website. It has not posted any comments on social media since Friday. On Saturday, it said it had no comment until the shooting’s facts are known.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said Sunday she would introduce legislation this week to ban assault weapons. The Democratic lawmaker authored the previous ban that lapsed in 2004.
Manchin acknowledged that Congress is focused on resolving the so-called fiscal cliff until the end of the year but signaled movement on the gun issue after that, a sentiment echoed by other lawmakers.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu