WASHINGTON (AP) — The man who shot a congressman and four other people Wednesday had apparently volunteered for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, the Vermont senator said Wednesday before assailing violence as "unacceptable in our society."
"I am sickened by this despicable act," said Sanders, an independent.
Sanders, 75, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton. He ran a passionate, anti-establishment campaign that won support from many younger, liberal voters and gave Clinton a closer race than many expected, but he eventually backed her candidacy.
The senator spoke hours after a man identified as James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois, opened fire on Republican lawmakers, aides and others practicing baseball in suburban Alexandria, Virginia. Officers shot Hodgkinson, who later died.
Sanders issued a two-paragraph statement on the shooting and read it nearly verbatim on the Senate floor. He ignored a reporter's attempt to ask him questions, walking briskly out of the Capitol after a vote.
"Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms," Sanders said. "Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values."
Robert Becker, director of Sanders' Iowa campaign, said staff workers could not recall Hodgkinson. Hodgkinson was said to have been among 1,000 volunteers around Davenport, but Becker said, "Nobody has a recollection of this guy coming in."
In his speech, Sanders said real change "can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values."
Conservatives immediately seized on Hodgkinson's support for Sanders, with commentator Ann Coulter, a frequent voice on conservative cable news and talk radio, describing the gunman as "some nut Bernie Sanders supporter."
Other conservatives praised Sanders for not using his time on the Senate floor to call for tougher gun restrictions.
Unlike some liberals, Sanders has a complicated record on guns.
Sanders has opposed some gun restrictions, including the Brady Bill requiring background checks for individuals buying firearms. Clinton criticized Sanders on the issue as her husband, Bill Clinton, signed the bill in 1993.
The issue played well for Clinton with liberals, particularly African-American voters who ultimately tilted the nomination to her.
Sanders defended his record on gun restrictions, arguing that residents of more rural states like Vermont view guns differently than many urban voters.
Mark Longabaugh, who worked on Sanders' presidential campaign, said the senator struck the right tone in his comments after the shooting, avoiding finger-pointing and not arguing for any legislative action.
"I think it's a sad state of affairs for people to exploit a tragedy like this for their own political ends," he said.
Barrow reported from Atlanta.