By Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Monday proposed tighter monitoring of the internet, mental health reform and wider use of the death penalty in response to mass slayings over the weekend that killed 30 people in Texas and Ohio.
The man arrested for killing 21 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, reportedly had racist motives and Trump said Americans must “condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
Trump did not directly address accusations that his own anti-immigrant and racially charged comments have contributed to a rise in race tensions.
“These sinister ideologies must be defeated,” he said in remarks at the White House. “Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.”
Democrats quickly accused Trump of hiding behind talk of mental health reform and the role of social media instead of committing to tighter gun laws to address gun violence in the United States.
On Saturday, several Mexican citizens were among the 21 people killed at the Walmart by a man who drove from his home in Allen, Texas, 660 miles (1,062 km) away, to El Paso on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Just 13 hours later, another gunman in downtown Dayton, Ohio, killed nine people. Dozens also were wounded in the attacks.
Trump, who has been accused of not doing enough to tackle extremist groups, said he was directing the Department of Justice to investigate domestic terrorism, and propose legislation to ensure that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty.
He also said the country needs to reform mental health laws to identify disturbed people as well as work with social media companies to detect possible mass shooters.
“We must make sure those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” he said.
Trump had earlier on Monday called for “strong background checks” on gun buyers but in his comments at the White House he gave no details on what he would push for, and it was not the central part of his message.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said.
That comment drew immediate criticism with Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar accusing the Republican president of trying to dodge the issue of gun control.
“There’s mental illness & hate throughout world, but U.S. stands alone w/high rate of gun violence,” she said on Twitter.
After a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, Trump proposed a ban an attachment known as a bump stock that gives a semi-automatic weapon the capacity of a machine gun. The ban went into effect in March.
But after a February 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead, Trump stepped back from a series of sweeping fixes to gun laws that he had considered amid a White House meeting he had gathered over the tragedy. Instead he supported a more modest set of steps after a private meeting with the NRA.
Trump also said on Monday that it was time to stop glorifying violence in society, and pointed to “gruesome and grisly” video games.
“It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.”
Democrats, who have long pushed for greater gun control, said Trump was indirectly to blame for the attack in Texas, with some drawing connections between his rhetoric to a resurgence in nationalism and xenophobic sentiment.
Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015 by characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug smugglers and he has likened immigrants coming across the southern U.S. border to an “invasion.” He also has called them “very bad thugs and gang members.”
At a rally in May in Panama City Beach in Florida’s Panhandle region, he had asked the crowd how to stop immigrants, prompting someone to shout “Shoot them.” Trump smiled as the audience applauded and said, “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.”
Police in El Paso cited a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto posted online shortly before the shooting, which they attributed to the suspect, Patrick Crusius, who drove to the city from his home near Dallas, as evidence that the bloodshed was racially motivated. Crusius was in custody on Monday, charged with capital murder.
The suspect in Dayton, Connor Betts, was killed by police after opening fire in an entertainment district. A motive in the that case not immediately evident.
Trump earlier on Monday called on Republicans and Democrats to work together on strong background checks and possibly combine that legislation with “desperately needed immigration reform.”
But Democratic lawmakers, who have fought Trump’s moves to toughen immigration laws and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, rejected any effort to tie gun control to immigration reform.
“Only a racist, driven by fear, could witness what took place this weekend – and instead of standing up to hatred, side with a mass murderer’s call to make our country more white. We are so much better than this president,” Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said.
Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, said in an interview on MSNBC that Trump’s suggestion was “disgusting.”
It was not immediately clear what specific steps Trump wants or what other action he plans to take with Congress on summer recess and U.S. lawmakers not scheduled to return to Washington until September.
The U.S. House of Representatives already has passed a bill calling for universal background checks for gun buyers, but it has not been taken up by the Republican-led Senate.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reconvene the chamber in an emergency session to pass the legislation.
“Instead of flailing around blaming everything under the sun, if the president is serious about ‘strong background checks’ there’s one thing he can do: Demand Sen. McConnell put the bipartisan, House-passed universal background checks bill up for a vote,” Schumer said in a tweet on Monday.
Trump also could invoke his power under the Constitution to call back Congress.
Representatives for McConnell, who broke his shoulder in a fall over the weekend, did not respond for a request for comment.
Representatives for the NRA also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mass shootings by lone-wolf attackers have increased concerns in recent years about the level of gun violence and the threat posed by racist and white supremacist ideologies.
While Democrats have pointed to Trump’s comments as inflaming racial tensions in the country, he tried to turn part of the blame on news organizations.
“The Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country. Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years,” Trump wrote in a tweet on Monday morning.
(The story fixes transposed words in Trump quote from May in paragraph 21.)
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Mohammed Zargham in Washington, Daniel Trotta in El Paso and Kim Palmer in Dayton; Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)