WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the strongest backers of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the Democratic Party, said it is time to sit down and have a "sensible, reasonable" debate about gun control in light of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and expressed an openness to banning assault weapons.
"It's time to move beyond rhetoric. We need to sit down and have a common-sense discussion and move in a reasonable way. ... Everything has to be on the table," Manchin said in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday, adding that he had just come from deer hunting with his family.
Manchin's comments are significant because he has an "A" rating from the NRA for his pro-gun positions, and the organization endorsed him as recently as October 2012.
"Joe Manchin is committed to protecting the Right to Keep and Bear Arms guaranteed to all Americans," NRA Chairman Chris Cox said.
Manchin also appears to be the first senator with an "A" rating from the NRA to go on national television in the wake of the Newtown shooting. On Sunday, David Gregory of NBC's "Meet the Press" said all 31 "pro-gun rights" senators in the new Congress turned down his request to appear on the show. CBS's "Face the Nation" said it ran into a similar problem. Manchin spokeswoman Emily Bittner told The Huffington Post their office had no record of "Meet the Press" reaching out to interview the senator on Sunday.
In Monday's interview, Manchin was critical of assault rifles, saying no hunter needs a weapon like that, although he didn't explicitly say he would back Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) ban on such weapons, which she has said she will introduce in the new year.
"I don't know anyone who in the hunting or sporting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don't know anybody that needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting," Manchin said. "I mean, these are things that need to be talked about."
While the NRA has always opposed such a ban in the past, Manchin said he believed the nature of the tragedy in Newtown changed the landscape.
"What's happened -- it's always been to the point when once you open it up, pretty soon you'll give up your whole Second Amendment rights, taking guns away and people not allowed to have guns. That's not what this should be about," Manchin said. "Millions and millions of people are proud gun owners, and they do it responsibly and by the law. So I think opening up and seeing the massacre of so many innocent children, it's changed. It's changed America. We've never seen this happen."
Manchin also said, however, that the NRA should have a seat at the table during the gun control debate.
"What I want to do is I want to call all our friends in the NRA and sit down and have this -- bring them into it," he added. "They have to be at the table."
Since the shooting in Newtown, the NRA has been silent and even took down its Facebook page.
This is a developing story and has been updated.