By Doina Chiacu and Pete Schroeder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two mass shootings that killed 29 people in Texas and Ohio reverberated across the U.S. political arena on Sunday, with some Democratic presidential candidates accusing President Donald Trump of stoking racial divisions while he said “hate has no place in our country.”
Dozens were also wounded Saturday and early Sunday in shootings within just 13 hours of each other in carnage that shocked a country that has become grimly accustomed to mass shootings and heightened concerns about domestic terrorism.
The first massacre occurred on Saturday morning in the heavily Hispanic border city of El Paso, where a gunman killed 20 people at a Walmart store before surrendering. Authorities in Texas said the rampage appeared to be a racially motivated hate crime and federal prosecutors are treating it as a case of domestic terrorism.
Across the country, a gunman opened fire in a downtown district of Dayton, Ohio, early on Sunday, killing nine people and wounding at least 26 others. The assailant, identified as Connor Betts, a 24-year-old white man, was taken down by police within 30 seconds but authorities still did not know why he launched the attack, the city’s police chief said.
The El Paso shooting sent shock waves onto the campaign trail for next year’s presidential election, with most Democratic candidates repeating calls for tighter gun control measures and some drawing connections to a resurgence in white nationalism and xenophobic politics in the United States.
Several 2020 candidates said Trump was indirectly to blame.
“Donald Trump is responsible for this. He is responsible because he is stoking fears ad hatred and bigotry,” U.S. Senator Cory Booker said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Speaking to reporters on the airport tarmac in Morristown, New Jersey after spending the weekend at his golf resort nearby, Trump said: “Hate has no place in our country, and we’re going to take care of it.”
In his first public comments on the shootings, he said he had spoken to the FBI, Attorney General William Barr and members of Congress about what can be done to prevent such violence, adding that “we have to get it stopped.” But he offered no specifics, except to say he would make a statement on Monday morning.
The Republican president did not address accusations by critics about his anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric, though he earlier called the El Paso shooting a “hateful act” and “an act of cowardice.”
“This is also a mental illness problem, if you look at both of these cases,” Trump told reporters. “These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”
Trump ordered flags at half-staff in honour of the victims.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney rebutted the Democrats’ allegations and attributed the shootings to “sick” individuals.
“There’s no benefit here in trying to make this a political issue, this is a social issue and we need to address it as that,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said Mexico would request, if necessary, extradition of the person responsible for the El Paso shooting. Mexico will consider litigation over an act of terrorism towards Mexicans in the United States.
It was a personal issue for Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who returned to El Paso after the attack in his hometown. Asked on CNN if he believed Trump was a white nationalist, he responded, “Yes, I do.”
“Let’s be very clear about what is causing this and who the president is,” O’Rourke said. “He is an open avowed racist and is encouraging more racism in this country.”
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders said he agreed that Trump was a white nationalist.
“It gives me no pleasure to say this but I think all of the evidence out there suggests that we have a president who is a racist, who is a xenophobe who appeals, and is trying to appeal, to white nationalism,” Sanders said on CNN.
“Clearly Donald Trump does not want anybody shooting down innocent people,” Sanders said, but his talk about invasions and calling Mexicans criminals risks leading unstable people to take up arms.
A hallmark of Trump’s presidency has been his determination to curb illegal immigration. Trump has drawn criticism for comments disparaging Mexican immigrants and referring to the flood of migrants trying to enter through the U.S. southern border as an “invasion.”
In recent weeks, critics also accused Trump of racism after his attacks on members of Congress who belong to racial or ethnic minorities. Trump has denied he is a racist or that he encourages white supremacists.
The White House cannot shirk its responsibility in shaping public discourse, said Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. “There’s no question that white nationalism is condoned at the highest levels of our government,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”
“He’s spoken about immigrants as being invaders. He’s given license for this toxic brew of white supremacy to fester more and more in this country, and we’re seeing the results of that,” Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, said on ABC.
While authorities were still investigating the motive of the El Paso shooter, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the rampage appeared to be a hate crime. Police cited a manifesto they attributed to the suspect, Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man, as evidence the bloodshed was racially motivated.
The statement called the Walmart attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The manifesto also expressed support for the gunman who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
The shooting renewed attention to domestic terrorism. FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate hearing in July the majority of the domestic terrorism the FBI has investigated were “motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with a reminder of Trump’s response to the deadly 2017 attack at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he said there were “fine people” on both sides.
Biden refrained from attacks on Trump on Sunday, instead calling for action to end “our gun violence epidemic.”
The carnage ranked as the eighth-deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, after a 1984 shooting in San Ysidro, California, in which 21 people died.
Despite several high-profile mass shootings in recent years, gun control has proven to be an intractable debate within the U.S. Congress, as lawmakers have failed to advance any significant policy changes to combat them.
Trump, in response to a question about what could be done about the gun problem, told reporters he was “talking to a lot of people” and more needed to be done but gave no specifics.
Republicans and some moderate Democrats have resisted placing additional restrictions on gun ownership, and efforts to improve mental health services or establish new ways to identify potential shooters before they act have not gained traction.
Democratic leaders in Congress responded to the pair of shootings with a call for action. They urged Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold an emergency session to debate gun control legislation. McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Pete Schroeder in Washington; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Bedminster, N.J., Michelle Price, Susan Cornwell and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Frances Kerry, Editing by Nick Zieminski and Grant McCool)