SIOUX CITY, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday rejected a plea from more than 200 mayors to call the Senate back early to consider new gun legislation, following two weekend mass shootings that left 31 people dead.
The 214 mayors, including those of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which were the scenes of the weekend massacres, in a letter to the Senate majority leader and Democratic leader Chuck Schumer urged the Senate to vote on legislation already approved by the House of Representatives expanding background checks for guns sales without waiting for the end of the Senate’s summer recess.
“The tragic events in El Paso and Dayton this weekend are just the latest reminders that our nation can no longer wait for our federal government to take the actions necessary to prevent people who should not have access to firearms from being able to purchase them,” said members of the United States Conference of Mayors who signed the letter.
McConnell said he has asked for bipartisan discussions on the matter, including possible restrictions on assault gun sales.
“We’re going to have these bipartisan discussions and when we get back (from the recess), hopefully, be able to come together and actually pass something,” McConnell said in an interview with Kentucky radio station WHAS. “I want to make a law and not just see this kind of political sparring going on.”
Asked about restrictions on assault weapons, McConnell said, “That will probably be discussed as well. It’s certainly one of the front and center issues.” But he said “background checks and red flags would probably lead the discussions.”
Republican President Donald Trump, he said, “is very much open to this discussion.”
Red flag laws allow courts and local law enforcement to remove guns from people who are deemed to present an imminent risk of danger to communities.
During a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris called on McConnell to bring the Senate back and hold a vote on the legislation.
“It is well within the power and the responsibility of the United States Congress to act in the best interest of the safety and well being of the American people,” Harris said. “And Congress, from my perspective, has been feckless on this issue and the rest of society is paying a price.”
Another presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, said there are enough votes in the Senate “to get something done.”
“We are not even being called back in session to get something done as if the clock is not ticking before we have another mass shooting in America,” said Booker, during a campaign stop in Aventura, Florida.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), a key donor to many Republican senators, indicated in a statement on Thursday it will oppose any further gun restrictions.
“I’m not inclined to discuss private conversations with President Trump or other key leaders on this issue,” the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, said in a statement.
“But I can confirm that the NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said. “The inconvenient truth is this: the proposals being discussed by many would not have prevented the horrific tragedies in El Paso and Dayton.”
The Democratic-led House in February passed a bill calling for universal background checks for gun buyers. The measure would close loopholes that have allowed some sales over the internet and at gun shows to be finalized without background checks.
A second bill also passed by the House in February would extend to 10 business days, from the current three, the amount of time for the background checks if information on a gun sale application is incomplete.
Neither has been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate. The White House earlier this year floated veto threats against both bills. On Wednesday, Trump said he wanted to strengthen background checks for gun purchases as he left the White House to visit Dayton and El Paso.
“The Republicans are held by the throat by the NRA,” Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren told a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Wednesday night. “Enough is enough.”
The mayors, including El Paso’s Dee Margo, a Republican, and Dayton’s Nan Whaley, a Democrat, urged early voting on the two background checks bills, pointing out that the United States has had 250 mass shootings so far in 2019.
“This is common sense gun legislation that the vast, vast majority of Americans support,” Whaley said during a call with reporters on Thursday. “All we are asking is for Congress to do their job to help our communities be more safe.”
Among those who signed the letter were the mayors of Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed at a nightclub in June 2016; Parkland, Florida, where 17 were massacred in a high school in February 2018; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 11 people were slain in a synagogue in October 2018; and Annapolis, Maryland, where five people were killed at a newspaper office in June 2018.
Two Democratic mayors who are running for president also signed the letter: Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, and New York City’s Bill de Blasio.
The NRA accused U.S. presidential candidates of using the shootings for political gain.
“Unfortunately, aspiring presidential candidates immediately took to the airwaves this past weekend to politicize these tragedies, and to demonize the NRA and its 5 million law-abiding members,” the gun rights lobby said.
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty, Bill Berkrot and Leslie Adler