CUMMING, Iowa (AP) — Friday looked like a typical January morning in Iowa — gray skies, a brisk breeze and a restaurant crammed with voters munching on breakfast pizzas while listening to a presidential candidate speak.
Introduced by Republican Rep. Thomas Massie as “the most pro-Second Amendment candidate in this race,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave his standard speech touting his record in his home state.
Then DeSantis opened the floor to questions. The first one was: “What actions would you take to reduce mass shootings?”
The shooting in Perry, Iowa, that left one sixth grader dead and five more people injured, immediately cast a shadow over the state’s first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 15. Three candidates were asked about it Thursday and Friday at campaign stops, some just a short drive from the school where a 17-year-old junior opened fire as students were returning from winter break.
Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was set to hold an event elsewhere in Perry — a town of 8,000 people — when emergency vehicles began to stream toward the nearby school.
As candidates swung through the state, questions about the shooting kept bubbling up. Still, the candidates largely stuck to their routines, with none canceling subsequent campaign stops. The questions didn’t disrupt the contenders’ pitches to Iowa’s conservative caucusgoers.
That’s a reflection of both the Republican Party’s resistance to any new measures restricting guns and how horribly commonplace attacks like the one in Perry have become in American life.
At a pair of CNN town halls Thursday night, the first questions to both DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley were about guns. A childcare provider asked DeSantis: “In light of the shooting today and without taking away any gun rights, what would you do to address the issue?”
After both politicians answered by stressing the need for more mental health services and school security — “we have to secure our schools the same way we secure our airports,” Haley said — the town halls both turned back to traditional political fodder with questions about the border, Israel and former President Donald Trump.
Hours after the shooting, Ramaswamy posted to the social media app X, formerly known as Twitter, a video of him being asked in Perry about the attack shortly after it unfolded. The man in the video framed his question by saying of teens: “I don’t think it’s that they’re too accessible to firearms.”
Haley made a quip Friday morning about Iowa’s sub-freezing temperatures when she was handed the microphone at the downtown Des Moines Rotary Club meeting before diving into her well-rehearsed campaign speech. She did not mention the shooting.
Two speakers preceding her referenced what happened and noted some of the personal connections in the audience of more than 100 to the school and town 40 miles northwest of Des Moines.
“I was waiting to see if she would mention it, and was surprised she didn’t,” said Robin Heinemann of Des Moines, who prefers Haley to all other Republican presidential candidates. “It’s such an obvious thing to mention, even a word of condolence.”
Still, some voters didn’t want to hear more — especially about guns. “Everybody in Iowa owns guns to go hunting; we are a state that hunts,” said Sheila Blake, a retired worker in the Federal Reserve’s anti-fraud office, as she waited for DeSantis Friday. “Mental health is what caused yesterday.”
Blake’s friend, Debbie Overholser, 69, also didn’t want DeSantis to talk about the shooting. “I’d like to hear him talk about what he’s going to do,” Overholser said. “I don’t want to hear any more heartache.”
Nonetheless, DeSantis was prompted to address the shooting Friday morning. He began by talking about the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, before he became governor, and touted how he removed the sheriff and school board members for the flawed law enforcement response to the attack.
“Parents out there can count on me as somebody that is going to put the safety of our kids and the safety of our souls on the front burner,” DeSantis said. “It’s important.”
But after several more questions about the border, bringing the nation together and democracy, someone asked DeSantis at the event’s close, again — what would he do to stop mass shootings?
DeSantis noted the 17-year-old shooter in Perry was too young to be able to legally own a gun and that whoever allowed him to have one needs to be held responsible. He then segued into politically safer grounds, complaining about leniency against criminals in Democratic-run cities like Chicago.
“You have to hold people accountable,” DeSantis said.
Associated Press reporter Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.