EXCLUSIVE – Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley says in the wake of this week’s deadly school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, the focus needs to be on combating the mental health crisis rather than on new legislation banning assault weapons.
"My heart fell like everybody else’s when we heard about Nashville," the former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor said at a town hall on the campaign trail in Salem, New Hampshire on Tuesday, as she referenced the attack at a Christian school in Nashville, where a shooter armed with two assault-style rifles and a handgun killed three students and three staff members.
Pointing to a 2015 mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, during her tenure as governor, Haley told the audience "I’ve been through my share of tragedies in South Carolina when I was governor. We don’t want to see that happen. How much longer is this country going to ignore mental health. It is a cancer, and it is killing our kids."
"We need to focus on what really matters. Mental health is the cancer that no one is talking about. One in four people have a mental health issue," Haley emphasized minutes later, in a national exclusive interview with Fox News Digital. "But if treated they live a perfectly normal life. It is horrific what happened in Nashville. It’s clear that that woman needed help. And so, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing that."
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Following Monday’s shooting, President Biden renewed his calls for Congress to pass an assault weapons ban.
"We have to do more to stop gun violence. It’s ripping our communities apart," the president urged in a statement from the White House. "I call on Congress again to pass my assault weapons ban."
However, Haley disagrees.
"To sit there and say that it’s just a gun issue is the lazy way out," Haley said. "We need to acknowledge the whole issue. And the whole issue is she [the shooter in Nashville] was struggling and there was nobody there to help her."
When asked by Fox News if she would consider an assault weapons ban if she were in the White House right now, Haley quickly answered: "I don’t deal with hypotheticals. I’m not going to deal with hypotheticals. We’re not going to go down that route. What I will tell you is we’re going to deal with mental health once and for all."
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Haley also highlighted that "we also need to talk about changing what we do with school safety. We need to have one entrance in and out. We need to have a law enforcement officer on every campus. And if we have to have metal detectors, we should do it. Our kids see them in airports. It’s OK if they see them in schools if that’s what it takes."
"We need to have one specialized mental health professional that does nothing but look for these issues. After COVID, we’ve got a lot of people with stress, anxiety, depression. They can’t even find a therapist now," Haley added. "We need to make sure we have treatment out there for them. Whether it’s doing it by telehealth. Whether it’s doing it by seeing someone, we’ve got to start getting people the help they need."
Democrats are criticizing Haley's stance on an assault weapons ban.
"It’s appalling that in the aftermath of another school shooting, Nikki Haley is, once again, standing in opposition to meaningful gun safety laws," longtime New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley told Fox News in a statement.
Buckely argued that "Haley has proven that while she’s more interested in scoring political points with the MAGA base, Granite Staters can’t count on her to keep our children safe."
Haley, who launched her presidential bid early last month at a kick-off event in South Carolina, was making her second campaign swing through New Hampshire, the state that holds the first primary and second overall contest in the GOP presidential nominating calendar. The jam-packed two-day trip included a fundraiser, closed door meetings with prominent Granite State Republican leaders and activists, and two town halls.
FIRST ON FOX: HALEY HEADED TO U.S.-MEXICO BORDER
During her town halls, she highlighted her solutions to combat the nation’s border security crisis, which is now into its third year. As Fox News first reported on Monday, Haley is headed to south Texas on April 3, when she’ll become the first Republican White House candidate to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.
Haley, who is unveiling her plan to handle the ongoing migrant crisis, explained that "I’m going to the border because I think illegal immigration should be a priority in this country. It’s horrific what’s happening."
"I’ve got an illegal immigration plan that basically says we’re going to do what I did in South Carolina and pass a mandatory e-verify plan so that no business can hire anyone that’s in this country illegally."
Haley, whose parents immigrated legally to the United States from India, received some of her biggest applause during the town hall when she highlighted that her immigration and border security plan would scrap the recent funding for up to 87,000 IRS staff in favor of 25,000 new Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Additionally, she told Fox News that "we’re going to make sure we stop giving taxpayer handouts to illegal immigrants. We’re going to make sure we defund sanctuary cities like Lawrence, [New Hampshire] and stop all the crime that’s coming from there. We’re going to make sure we got back to ‘remain in Mexico.’ We’re not going to stop Title 42. And we’re going to stop catch and release and go to catch and depart. When we do that, we’ll be serious about illegal immigration."
Haley is the only well-known Republican so far to challenge her one-time boss — former President Trump — for the 2024 GOP nomination. Trump, who the polling front-runner at this early point in the 2024 cycle, launched his campaign in mid-November, but has not visited the southern border.
When asked if Trump should head to the U.S.-Mexico border, Haley said, "I’m not dealing with anybody else’s campaign. I’m dealing with mine. Illegal immigration should be a top priority for anybody who’s running for president. It’s top priority for me because it’s a top priority for all Americans."