By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on Friday more government is not always the answer for Americans when crises erupt and "stuff happens," a remark that Democrats charged was a callous response to victims of gun violence a day after an Oregon mass shooting.
At a conservative forum in South Carolina, Bush was asked a rambling question by moderator Alan Wilson, who is the state's attorney general. Wilson pressed him on whether there should be more prayer vigils at schools and other institutions to prevent tragedies such as when someone "with an Uzi or a handgun" shoots "a bunch of people."
Wilson did not mention the Oregon shootings a day earlier in which nine people were killed.
“We’re in a difficult time in our country and I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else," Bush, a former Florida governor, replied.
"It’s just very sad to see," Bush added. "I resist the notion that -- I did -- I had this challenge as governor. Look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something, and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do."
Democrats, who see Bush as a threat to their chances of holding the White House should he become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, pounced on the remark, a day after the mass shooting at an Oregon community college.
"What a way for Republicans to end a horrible week. In the aftermath of another national gun tragedy, Jeb Bush just told victims of gun violence everywhere, 'stuff happens'", the Democratic National Committee said in a statement.
President Barack Obama was asked about the "stuff happens" remark at a White House news conference.
"I don't even think I have to react to that one. I think the American people should hear that and make their own judgments based on the fact that every couple of months we have a mass shooting and ... they can decide whether they consider that stuff happening," Obama said.
Bush, who like most Republicans favors Americans' gun rights under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was pressed to explain his comment by reporters after he spoke.
He said states, not the federal government, should tighten access to weapons by people who are mentally ill.
"I think that’s the proper place that states need to look at it. And I think some states have done a much better job of creating a database so that you can identify people that have significant mental health challenges and they shouldn’t have access to guns," he said.
When a reporter asked Bush about the "stuff happens" comment, Bush said he was not referring to the Oregon shootings.
"There are all sorts of things that happen in life. Tragedies unfold. Look, just read the papers, and you see a child dies in a poll, is drowned, and parents want to pass a law to do something," he said.
"And you got to be careful that you want to solve the problem. If there is a problem, a defect in the law, fine, then we did that all the time. But sometime you’re imposing solutions to problems that doesn’t fix the problem and takes away people’s liberty and rights and that’s the point I was trying to make," Bush said.
Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said Democrats "aided and abetted by some in the national media," had Bush's comments out of context to advance their political agenda.
"Taking shameless advantage of a horrific tragedy is wrong and only serves to prey on people's emotions," she said.
(Reporting By Steve Holland and Alana Wise; editing by Clive McKeef)