U.S. security chief urges gun control steps after Orlando attack

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called on Tuesday for "meaningful, responsible" gun control measures following the Florida nightclub massacre, saying steps were needed to keep firearms out of the hands of people who might be planning terrorist attacks.

Johnson, in several morning television interviews, said such curbs were a critical step for public safety and could be taken without infringing on the rights and abilities for responsible people to own a gun.

"This has become a matter of homeland security," Johnson told CBS News. "We need to do something. We need to minimize the opportunities for terrorists to get a gun in this country."

Discussing Sunday's attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando by a gunman who killed 49 people, Johnson said the prospect of homegrown violent extremism was something the public and U.S. lawmakers must face.

The shooting was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Authorities said the gunman appeared to have acted alone, but was inspired by radical ideology he was exposed to over the internet.

Johnson said he had thought the nation would address access to high-capacity assault rifles after the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed. Legislation that would have imposed some gun control measures failed in Congress the following year.

"We've seen the devastation and the deaths that one assault rifle with a number of magazines can bring about," Johnson told CBS.

Johnson, who also spoke on CNN and ABC, said officials must address the gap that allows people who are banned from airline flights to buy firearms.

"This is now something that is critical to homeland security as well as public safety," Johnson said. He added that he has not spoken publicly on gun control until now.

Democrats in Congress have renewed their call for gun control following the Orlando massacre. The likely Democratic candidate for November's presidential election, Hillary Clinton, has urged a ban on assault weapons.

Republican lawmakers have rejected such calls, and Republican candidate Donald Trump has said the Orlando attack shows why Americans need to have guns, to better protect themselves.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry)