Washington Republican presidential candidate John McCain declared Wednesday he believes in "no gun control," making the strongest affirmation of support for gun rights in the GOP field since the Virginia Tech massacre.
The Arizona senator said in Summerville, S.C., that the country needs better ways to identify dangerous people like the gunman who killed 32 people and himself in the Blacksburg, Va., rampage. But he opposed weakening gun rights and, when asked whether ammunition clips sold to the public should be limited in size, said, "I don't think that's necessary at all."
GOP rival Rudy Giuliani, too, voiced his support for the Second Amendment on Wednesday, but not in such absolute terms. Once an advocate of strong federal gun controls, the former New York mayor said "this tragedy does not alter the Second Amendment" while indicating he favors the right of states to pass their own restrictions.
Other candidates in both parties have stayed largely silent on the issue in the immediate aftermath of the killings, except to express their sorrow.
McCain has opposed many gun controls in the Senate over the years but broke from most of his party - and his past - in supporting legislation to require background checks for buyers at gun shows. In one such vote, he relished taking a position at odds with the National Rifle Association.
In a speech Wednesday to a crowd of 400, McCain was unequivocal in support of the right to bear arms.
"I do not believe we should tamper with the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," he said. A woman shouted that George Washington's troops used muskets, not automatic weapons.
"I hope that we can find better ways of identifying people such as this sick young man so that we can prevent them from not only taking action with guns but with knives or with anything else that will harm their fellow citizens," McCain said.
McCain reiterated that later with reporters.
"I strongly support the Second Amendment and I believe the Second Amendment ought to be preserved - which means no gun control," McCain said.
The candidates' silence and discomfort may become insupportable once the nation finds its voice in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech murders.
Democrats have been deliberately muted for months on an issue that, by their own reckoning, contributed to and perhaps sealed their defeat in the 2000 presidential election. That's when Al Gore's call for gun registration cost him votes in rural America and dulled the party's appetite for taking on the gun lobby.
Top Republicans in the race are trying to close ranks with their party's conservative base on a variety of issues, making gun control an unusually sensitive one for them, too, thanks to their liberal views in the past.
With facts still unfolding, the killer was described as a creepy loner who had been accused of stalking two women, wrote violent schoolwork, been sent to mental health counseling for suspected suicidal tendencies, and scared some fellow students out of coming to class - yet did not have a criminal record that might have stopped him from buying his guns.