LAS VEGAS — Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday the country has to face "hard truths" about guns and race in the wake of a shooting at a historically black church in South Carolina that left nine dead.
"How many innocent people in our country, from little children to church members to movie theater attendees, how many people do we need to see cut down before we act?" the Democratic presidential candidate said during a speech in Las Vegas, alluding to mass shootings a Connecticut elementary school and Colorado movie theater.
Clinton spoke at a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, an event that afforded her the opportunity to campaign before a largely supportive crowd of Hispanic politicians. But campaign politics were overshadowed by the late Thursday slaying of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Clinton had campaigned in Charleston earlier on Thursday, and said she learned of the attack after she landed in Las Vegas. As did President Barack Obama earlier in the day, Clinton said this latest incident involving the killing of several people required a reckoning with the country's history of gun violence.
"In order to make sense of it we have to be honest," she said. "We have to face hard truths about race, violence, guns and division."
In an interview later Thursday with Nevada journalist Jon Ralston, Clinton embraced the idea of universal background checks. "Let's just cut to the chase," she said. "It's guns."
The suspect in the shooting, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was described as an apparent "disaffected white supremacist" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Justice Department said it had started a hate crime investigation.
The prospect that race played a role in the shooting hung over Clinton's remarks. Speaking of critics of immigrants, Clinton said: "When I hear words of hatred and anger directed at any of our fellow human beings I ask myself, 'What is motivating that?'"
In an email to supporters, Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, called the shooting "an act of terror."
"Nine of our fellow Americans were murdered while praying in a historic church because of the color of their skin," Sander said, adding: "This hateful killing is a horrific reminder that, while we have made important progress in civil rights for all of our people, we are far from eradicating racism."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had planned to campaign in Charleston on Thursday, but he canceled his event in the wake of the attack.
"Our hearts are broken at the senseless loss of life," Bush said in a statement. "Our prayers are for the community that has lost its pastor and a brave leader. May the families and the city of Charleston be lifted up by the prayers of our entire nation."
Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer and Steve Peoples in Washington, Riley Snyder in Carson City, Nevada, and Tom Beaumont in Washington, Iowa, contributed to this report.