WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Two mass shootings that killed 29 people in Texas and Ohio reverberated across the United States’ political arena on Sunday (Aug 4) as Democratic presidential candidates called for stricter gun laws and some accused President Donald Trump of being a white nationalist.
Dozens were also wounded last Saturday and early on Sunday in shootings occurring within just 13 hours of each other. The carnage shocked a country that has become grimly accustomed to mass shootings, and heightened concerns about domestic terrorism.
The first massacre occurred last Saturday morning in the heavily Hispanic border city of El Paso, where a gunman killed 20 people at a Walmart store before surrendering. The 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 was killed by police, making the death toll for both shootings 30.
The El Paso shooting resonated on the campaign trail for next year’s US 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 US.
Several 2020 candidates said Mr Trump was indirectly to blame.
“Donald Trump is responsible for this. He is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry,” Senator Cory Booker said on CNN’s State Of The Union.
The Republican President called the El Paso shooting a”hateful act” and “an act of cowardice”. Mr Trump has not made a public statement on the shootings other than his Twitter posts, which also expressed sympathy for the victims. He ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor 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 on Sunday on ABC’s This Week.
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 Mr 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,” Mr O’Rourke said. “He is an open avowed racist and is encouraging more racism in this country.”
Senator Bernie Sanders said he agreed that Mr 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,” Mr Sanders said on CNN.
“Clearly Donald Trump does not want anybody shooting down innocent people,” he said, but added that Mr Trump’s talk about invasions and calling Mexicans criminals risk leading unstable people to take up arms.
Representative Tim Ryan noted: “White nationalists think he’s a white nationalist.”
A hallmark of Mr Trump’s presidency has been his determination to curb illegal immigration.
Mr Trump has drawn criticism for comments disparaging Mexican immigrants and referring to the flood of migrants trying to enter through the US southern border as an “invasion”.
In recent weeks, critics also accused Mr Trump of racism after his attacks on members of Congress who belong to racial or ethnic minorities. Mr Trump has denied he is a racist.
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.
Mr Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, said on ABC: “He’s spoken about immigrants as being invaders. He’s given licence for this toxic brew of white supremacy to fester more and more in this country, and we’re seeing the results of that.”
While the 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, a 21-year-old white man, as evidence that the bloodshed was racially motivated.
The statement called the Walmart attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”. It 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 that the majority of domestic terrorism cases 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 Mr 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.
Mr Biden refrained from attacks on Mr Trump on Sunday, instead calling for action to end “our gun violence epidemic”.
The Walmart carnage ranked as the eighth-deadliest mass shooting in modern US 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 US Congress, as lawmakers have failed to advance any significant policy changes to combat them.
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 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, after lawmakers left Washington just a few days ago for a five-week recess. Mr McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.