ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is a freshman Democrat with an A-rating from the National Rifle Association. And he's one of those conservative and moderate Democrats who, since the Newtown killings, have spoken of the need to do something about guns. He's said everything is on the table. Senator Manchin, welcome.
SENATOR JOSEPH MANCHIN: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And I want to get a sense from you about how big a table you're really talking about. There was...
MANCHIN: Well, you know, first of all, let me just say that I am a proud member of the NRA and have been, and I'm a lifetime member and will always be. I'm a defender of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
But with that being said, you know, we need to take a look now who we are as a society, as a country, and how we protect those that need protecting the most, which is our babies and our children. And I didn't think in my life that I would ever see a slaughter, as you will, with 20 babies and how it's changed forever this country. More than atmosphere...
SIEGEL: You know, Senator, I'm actually surprised you say you never expected to see that, since we've seen mass shootings in just about every kind of venue you can imagine: high schools, shopping malls, universities. Mm-hmm.
MANCHIN: Not 6 and 7 - yeah. I haven't seen it with children and babies like that, 6- and 7-year-old. I just - I can't imagine, I didn't see that, nor did I ever expect that I would see it.
SIEGEL: There was a big University of Pennsylvania study about the old assault weapons ban that was in effect from '94 to 2004, and it found that a major flaw was that that ban grandfathered in millions of, well, start with large-capacity magazines and assault weapons that had been made and sold before the ban. Can you imagine the Congress doing something that wouldn't just ban sale or manufacture, but possession and saying, you can't have that? Doesn't matter if it was made in 1992 or if it was made in 2012.
MANCHIN: Right. Well, I don't know about retroactively. I haven't heard anybody speak about retroactively going back and confiscating or buying back. I haven't heard any of that on the table. I'm sure if we can get all parties to the table, we can talk about all of these things. I can't give you any estimation of what would happen, but I think it's a dialogue that needs to happen.
Robert, this atmosphere, people are almost up in Washington, guilt by association. We can't even have a conversation without someone accusing somebody to be a traitor, change their side or leaving where they've come from.
SIEGEL: You sound like a man who's heard that from people over the past couple of days.
MANCHIN: Sure you hear that...
SIEGEL: You personally have heard that.
MANCHIN: But also I've heard of people that are same as me, proud gun owners, NRA members are saying, you know, we're willing to sit down and talk. The skeptics are this. Whatever happens in government - whether it be federal, state, local government - it never stops at just fixing the problem. It either goes too far one way or the other or not far enough.
SIEGEL: Well, let me put you some of the things that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said. For example, he raises the question of why should anybody be selling armor-piercing bullets to anyone in this country? The only people they'd be used against, they're not - you know, as he says, the deer don't wear armor. They're for shooting cops. They're for shooting people who wear bulletproof vests.
MANCHIN: It makes all the common sense in the world. That question is as common, and it should be asked, and it should be talked about and everyone should come to agreement on that. Those are the things. But if you can't get people in the room, in a commonsense way, talking about things that logically make sense, you know, I can't give you an answer. I don't know. I'd like to find out.
SIEGEL: But you've said that, for example, as a hunter, you've never used a clip that fired off more than three...
SIEGEL: ...three rounds, I guess.
MANCHIN: Correct. I'm a sportsman. You know, I go out clay shooting and put three shells in.
SIEGEL: Can you go so far as to say there should be a real limit, as there used to be, on how big a magazine you can use?
MANCHIN: What I will say is I want to sit down with the people that want 10 or more rounds. I want to hear. I don't know. I want to hear their reasoning, and I think that's a conversation that we need to have, Robert, and I keep saying that.
SIEGEL: What I hear you saying is it's time to sit down and talk with people on all sides, but I don't hear you saying that you're bringing a strong belief in what could or should be banned right now into those talks.
MANCHIN: Robert, I think if we have people coming with preset notions and basically their minds made up, the wrong people are coming to the table.
SIEGEL: But here's a reasonable suspicion that people have, knowing how Washington works. When the Congress wrote up an assault weapon ban back in the early '90s, by the time all the lobbying was done, so many exceptions had been worked in to how a weapon that might be defined as an assault weapon by somebody could be altered in the following ways so that it would be a sporting weapon instead. And pretty soon you had a very - such a complicated definition that when you ask people today, was the rifle used in Newtown, Connecticut, banned under the assault ban, everyone we asked says, you know, it's really a complicated question; I can't tell you that.
MANCHIN: Right. And it shouldn't be complicated. And now that we know that basically however it got muddled up in the last legislation, can that be corrected? You know, if you can't have - and I told Senator Feinstein. I said, Dianne, you've been working on this for quite some time. It's very near and dear to you, and I respect that. And I want to learn more and see where you're coming from. On the other hand, I want my friends at the NRA and all of us sitting down so you can hear what they're coming and what they see around this country.
SIEGEL: And at that table, if you sit at that table, are you prepared in the end to vote to ban things that indeed many of your constituents might like and might think are part of their culture?
MANCHIN: I'll be prepared to vote with whatever I can do to protect children, and if facts bear that out, I will prepare to vote for that.
SIEGEL: Senator Manchin, thank you very much for talking with us today.
MANCHIN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.