Ted Cruz (file photo)

Ted Cruz (file photo)

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz uses the word “evil” to describe last week’s shootings in a South Carolina church.

“A sick and deranged man went and prayer for an hour with the congregants at an historically black church and then, for reasons we don’t fully understand, murdered nine innocent souls,” Cruz said Friday afternoon.

But Cruz is accusing Democrats of trying to use the situation to “divide people” and gain “partisan advantage”.

“It’s sad to see the Democrats take a horrific crime and try to use it as an excuse not to go after people with serious mental illness or people who are repeat felons or criminals, but rather try to use it as an excuse to take away the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cruz said. “Those are altogether different issues and we need to focus on protecting our Bill of Rights and also on keeping everyone safe.”

In response to the shooting deaths in Charleston, both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have called for advancing gun control measures. Cruz, who is a first-term senator from Texas, made an appearance at an indoor shooting range in suburban Des Moines on Saturday. He told reporters the constitutional right to keep and bear arms is “unconnected” to the “horrific” hate crime in South Carolina.

Cruz had to cancel an event in Council Bluffs when his flight to Omaha was cancelled on Friday, but he met with more than 70 people at a town hall meeting in Red Oak Friday afternoon. Cruz told reporters he’ll visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties to make his case.

“If presidential races began in big states…they’d be decided by a bunch of slick Hollywood TV ads and whoever could come up with the best ads might win,” Cruz said. “The great thing about starting in the state of Iowa is everyone here understands the rest of the country is trusting the men and women of Iowa to look us in the eyes and to make a determination of who’s telling the truth and who’s blowing smoke.”

Cruz plans to return to Iowa next weekend.

(Reporting by Mike Peterson, KMA, Shenandoah; additional reporting and editing by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson.)