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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta waves goodbye as he departs Rome en route to Vincenza, Italy on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. Panetta was in Rome as part of a weeklong swing across Europe, meeting with defense ministers to talk about ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Mali. This is expected to be Panetta's last overseas trip as Pentagon chief, as he long has planned to step down once his replacement is confirmed.
VICENZA, Italy—Defense Secretary Leon Panetta fired off a strong defense of gun control legislation Thursday, in front of a decidedly skeptical audience.

Speaking to about 150 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Panetta said steps can be taken to protect kids in school without undermining the Second Amendment.

"Who the hell needs armor-piercing bullets except you guys in battle?" Panetta told the soldiers at the U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza in northern Italy. "For the life of me, I don't know why the hell people have to have assault weapons."

Panetta, who said he believes in the Second Amendment and has been a longtime duck hunter, was asked about the issue by a soldier who wanted to know what steps the Obama administration was going to take to deal with attacks in schools that "don't have to do with tearing apart our Second Amendment."

Known for his often blunt and colorful language, Panetta added that things can be done to protect children "so that the nuts that are out there won't use these kinds of weapons to wipe them out."

President Barack Obama's sweeping gun control package includes calls for a ban on assault weapons and a universal requirement for background checks on gun purchases.