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Ted Cruz: It’s up to South Carolina to decide on Confederate flag

Cruz said it's up to South Carolina to decide on the Confederate flag.  (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

This post has been updated.

JOHNSTON, Iowa – Sen. Ted Cruz says whether or not South Carolina removes the Confederate flag from a state house memorial is an issue for the state to decide and that he sees “both sides” of the debate.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday, Cruz (R-Tex.) said that he understands why people equate the flag with both racial oppression and historical traditions.

“I understand the passions that this debate evokes on both sides,” the GOP presidential hopeful said. “Both those who see a history of racial oppression and a history of slavery, which is the original sin of our nation, and we fought a bloody civil war to expunge that sin.”

He added: “But I also understand those who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states, not the racial oppression, but the historical traditions, and I think often this issue is used as a wedge to try to divide people.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said Saturday that the flag should be taken down.

[Mitt Romney just put the GOP’s current presidential candidates on the spot]

Cruz noted that he is from Texas and the state is “fond of the Texas flag” because it was an independent nation for nine years, and people’s emotions run deep on the issue. He said it is up to South Carolina to decide what to do with the Confederate flag.

“I think that’s a question for South Carolina, and the last thing they need is people from outside the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve that issue,” Cruz said.

Cruz has repeatedly said he is “horrified” by the shooting deaths of nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., and has offered prayers for the families of the victims.

“One of the incredible things yesterday was to see the families of those who were murdered calling for forgiveness of the murderer,” Cruz said Saturday. “I have to admit, if it were my family, I don’t know that I could demonstrate that degree of forgiveness.”

Cruz said he agrees with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s assertion that the accused gunman should be subject to the death penalty. Dylann Roof, 21, has been charged with murder in the case.

In an event at an indoor shooting range and firearms training facility here, Cruz again vociferously defended the Second Amendment and said Democrats are using the Charleston shootings to try to roll back gun rights.

[Read: Ted Cruz: Democrats using Charleston as ‘excuse’ to take away gun rights]

Cruz on Saturday said again that Democrats and Obama “cynically” used the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., to try to take away gun rights and that he fought to block that gun control legislation.

Cruz said that the Obama administration only prosecuted a fraction of the people who tried to purchase a firearm after failing a background check, and that its prosecution rates of gun felons dropped.

“In my view that’s totally unacceptable. If you have a violent felon, if you have a fugitive who is illegally trying to buy guns, we should come down on them like a ton of bricks,” he said. “If there are murders and rapists and they’re coming in trying to get guns, we ought to go and stop them.”

Cruz again laid out a laundry list of ways that he has protected the Second Amendment, including writing a pro-Second Amendment amicus brief on behalf of 31 states that he submitted to the Supreme Court when he was Texas solicitor general. The Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia's ban on handguns in the case, District of Columbia v. Heller.

After taking questions and shaking hands, Cruz took to the shooting range, firing off rounds on a semiautomatic .223-caliber Smith and Wesson M&P15.