WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, addressing the nation in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings, called for the country to collectively "condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy."
Trump, in a nearly 10-minute speech delivered from the White House Diplomatic Room, called the shootings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and in a Dayton, Ohio, nightlife district, “an assault upon our communities," while suggesting that mental illness, violent video games and online forums crowded with hatemongers were to blame for the nation's spate of mass shootings.
The president, who had tweeted hours earlier that "strong background checks" were needed, made no mention in his speech of the growing calls from Democrats to pass stricter gun control laws.
"Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun," Trump said. "I am open and ready to listen and discuss all ideas that will actually work and make a very big difference."
Trump called for increased vigilance of “the dark recesses of the internet” that promote hate speech and violence, and improvements to so-called “red flag” laws aimed at preventing individuals with mental illness from obtaining firearms.
“In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said, reading from prepared remarks. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.”
Trump’s disavowal of white supremacy came as a field of Democrats have accused him of stoking racial tensions and anti-immigrant sentiment through his tweets and rhetoric. Authorities in El Paso say the Texas shooter, who killed 22 people, including four children, is “strongly” believed to have written an online manifesto that complained about a “Hispanic invasion” and listed other grievances against immigrants that mirror talking points used by Trump at campaign rallies.
During the past month the president has faced widespread backlash about his tweets urging four congresswomen of color to "go back" to other countries, for not stopping chants of "Send her back" directed at a Somali-born congresswoman that were shouted by his supporters at a campaign rally, and for describing a predominantly black congressional district in Baltimore as a "rat infested mess."
The president called the Walmart shooter a “wicked man,” and described the shooter in Dayton who killed nine individuals as a "twisted monster." Trump said he has directed "the FBI to identify all further resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism."
Hours before his speech, Trump sought to tie calls for stricter gun control laws to his own long-standing promises to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. On Twitter he suggested background check legislation could be coupled with legislation that provides “desperately needed immigration reform.”
“We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain,” Trump tweeted shortly before 7 a.m. “Likewise for those so seriously wounded. We can never forget them, and those many who came before them. Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform. We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events!”
The president has voiced support previously for stricter background check laws in the aftermath of national shootings, but in February he threatened to veto a pair of background check bills that passed through the Democratic-led U.S. House.
One of the two measures, both of which have languished in the Republican-controlled Senate, would require background checks for all gun sales, including those conducted between individual sellers. Under current federal law, only federally licensed dealers are required to conduct background checks before a sale.
The second measure passed by House Democrats in February would extend the time gun vendors must wait for a background check to 10 days, up from the current standard of 3 days to transfer ownership of a gun.
Following last year’s deadly shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school, Trump promised he would be “very strong on background checks,” and voiced support for raising the age limit to purchase firearms from 18 to 21, but he soon backtracked on those ideas following a meeting with the National Rifle Association.
The president has instead pushed the Justice Department to enact a ban on “bump stocks” and other devices that add firepower to semi-automatic rifles. The ban came after a deadly shooting in 2017 at a Las Vegas country music festival, in which the shooter used nearly a dozen rifles fitted with bumpstocks to kill 60 people and injure dozens more.
Trump also backed bipartisan legislation aimed at improving the federal government’s NICS background check system used in gun purchases. The “Fix NICS” law mandates that federal agencies turn over relevant information to the database. The measure came after a shooter with a previous domestic violence conviction killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The shooter’s past conviction should have prevented his purchasing the gun, but the conviction, which was rendered in an Air Force court-martial, was never recorded in the federal database.
Lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reconvene the Senate, currently in recess, to schedule a vote on the pair of background check measures passed by the House in February.
Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a joint statement, said "it is incumbent upon the Senate to come back into session to pass this legislation immediately." The two also criticized Trump for not mentioning his own calls for background check reforms in his speech.
“It took less than three hours for the president to back off his call for stronger background check legislation," said Pelosi and Schumer. "When he can’t talk about guns when he talks about gun violence, it shows the president remains prisoner to the gun lobby and the NRA."
The NRA did not immediately respond to the new wave of criticism, but on Sunday the powerful gun lobbying group, in a statement, said it "will not participate in the politicizing of these tragedies."
CORRECTION: Sutherland Springs was misspelled in a previous version of this story.