Donald Trump pledged to veto any additional gun regulations should he be elected president, telling voters on Monday that the perpetrators of mass shootings “always find a way to get something, whether it’s a gun or otherwise”.
“We have tremendous regulations already, a lot of people don’t even realize,” the Republican presidential candidate told a New Hampshire town hall hosted by NBC’s Today show. “People aren’t abiding by them, government does a terrible job of enforcing them, but we already have tremendous regulations.”
Trump added that easy access to guns was a problem that could be solved by law enforcement, saying: “You’ve got to enforce what we’ve got right now, and there’re plenty right now.”
He then contended that mental health issues were the core issue of the United States’ continuing run of mass shootings, of which there have been at least 1,000 since a gunman killed 26 people, mostly children, in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in December 2012. After several recent shootings, including the killing of nine people in Roseburg, Oregon, at the beginning of this month, gun control has re-emerged as a major issue in presidential campaign politics for the first time in 15 years, when the Columbine high school massacre haunted the 2000 election.
But Trump hewed close to common Republican talking points of the last few election cycles, refusing to ascribe fault to gunmakers, dealers or the weapons themselves.
“The fact is we have a huge mental health problem, and if you look at some states, including New York and others, they’ve left, in order to save money for finance reasons, left people out of mental institutions,” Trump said.
The real-estate billionaire added, without citing specific examples or statistics: “So many of these institutions – did you see that – they’re closing and putting people out on the street.”
Guns were not a problem, he insisted: “It is people that are unstable. We have to straighten out our mental health. And we do have in this country big mental health problems. And that’s the problem.
“This is a mental health problem. We have to straighten out our institutions.”
Last week Trump accused Barack Obama of plotting to take guns from their owners, telling a crowd in South Carolina: “You know, the president is thinking about signing an executive order where he wants to take your guns away.”
He then stood by the claim, telling CNN: “I’ve heard that he wants to. And I heard it, I think, on your network. Somebody said that that’s what he’s thinking about.”
He then said he’d heard it from “numerous networks” and read the claim “in the papers”. “My source is the papers,” he said, “So you know, they’re pretty good sources.”
Trump did not miss the opportunity to take potshots at his Republican opponents, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Carson – whose soft-spoken manner belies a habit of making controversial comments – has overtaken Trump in some polls, pitting two never-elected candidates against each other as the Republican party’s frontrunners ahead of the party’s next debate on Wednesday. Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, has watched his status in the polls fall from presumed leader to single-digits, and has struggled to assert himself against the “outsider” candidates rousing populist support.
Both rivals, Trump said, are “weak on the second amendment”. He added that he thought Bush’s remark after the Oregon shooting that “stuff happens” was “a terrible expression”.
Trump also tried on a new “nice guy” persona for the New Hampshire voters, many of whom clapped emphatically whenever the billionaire vowed to expel Syrian refugees or Central American immigrants. He suggested that some people in those groups could be jihadi militants, in the case of Syrians, and criminals who “raped and sodomized”, in the case of the Central Americans.
Immigrants could come to the US legally, and through a wall on the Mexican border, Trump said. Syrian migrants would be better served by “a big swatch of land” in the Middle East maintained by the Gulf states, he said.
“I have a heart; it’s horrible to watch,” Trump said of the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. But “this could be the greatest Trojan horse of all time”, he added.
Trump also reiterated his claim that an intern was responsible for retweeting a comment that Iowan voters are brain-damaged, and tried to sell himself as a regular American who worked for all his riches.
“My whole life really has been a ‘no’ and I’ve fought through it,” Trump, the son of a New York real estate millionaire, told a voter who asked whether he had ever experienced rejection. “It has not been easy for me,” he said. “I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan of $1m. I came into Manhattan, and I had to pay him back. I had to pay him back with interest.”