Obama: To protect kids, “We will have to change”
BY JIM KUHNHENN AND BEN FELLER Associated Press December 16, 2012 6:00PM
US President Barack Obama speaks at a memorial service for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama will address the memorial for the twenty-six people, 20 of them children, who were killed when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and began a shooting spree. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
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Updated: December 17, 2012 7:18AM
NEWTOWN, Conn. — He spoke for a nation in sorrow, but the slaughter of all those little boys and girls left President Barack Obama, like so many others, reaching for words. Alone on a spare stage, the commander in chief was a parent in grief.
“I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depth of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts,” Obama said Sunday night at a vigil in the grieving community of Newtown, Conn. “I can only hope that it helps for you to know that you are not alone in your grief.”
The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday elicited horror around the world, soul-searching in the United States, fresh political debate about gun control and questions about the incomprehensible — what drove the suspect to act.
It also left a newly re-elected president openly grappling for bigger answers. Obama said that in the coming weeks, he would use “whatever power this office holds” to engage with law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents and educators in an effort to prevent more tragedies like Newtown.
“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days,” Obama said, somber and steady as some in the audience wept.
“If we’re honest . . . the answer is no. And we will have to change.”
He promised to lead a national effort but left unclear was what that would entail and how much it would address the explosive issue of gun control.
“What choice do we have?” Obama said. “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
As Obama read some of the names of victims early in his remarks, several people broke down, their sobs heard throughout the hall.
He closed his remarks by slowly reading the first names of each of the 26 victims.
“God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory,” he said.
For Obama, ending his fourth year in office, it was another sorrowful visit to another community in disbelief. It is the job of the president to be there, to listen and console, to offer help even when the only thing within his grasp is a hug.
Privately, Obama told Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy that Friday was the most difficult day of his presidency.
All the victims in Friday’s shooting were killed up close by multiple rifle shots. The toll: Six adults and 20 boys and girls, all just 6 or 7 years old.
At the vigil, children held stuffed teddy bears and dogs. The smallest kids sat on their parents’ laps.
There were tears and hugs, but also smiles. Mixed with disbelief was a sense of a community reacquainting itself all at once. One man said it was less mournful, more familial. Some kids chatted easily with their friends. The adults embraced each other in support.
Before the vigil, Obama met privately with families of the victims and with the emergency personnel who responded to the shootings. That meeting happened at Newtown High School, the site of Sunday night’s interfaith vigil, about a mile and a half from where the shootings took place.
“We’re halfway between grief and hope,” said Curt Brantl, whose fourth-grade daughter was in the library of the elementary school when the shootings occurred. She was not harmed.
Police and firefighters got hugs and standing ovations when they entered. So did Obama.
“We needed this,” said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church. “We need to be together here in this room. . . . We needed to be together to show that we are together and united.”
The shootings have restarted a debate in Washington about what politicians can to do help — gun control or otherwise. Obama on Friday called for leaders to agree on “meaningful action” to prevent killings.
Police say the gunman, Adam Lanza, was carrying an arsenal of ammunition big enough to kill just about every student in the school if given enough time. He shot himself in the head just as he heard police drawing near, authorities said.
A Connecticut official said the gunman’s mother was found dead in her pajamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a.22-caliber rifle. The killer then went to the school with guns he took from his mother and began blasting his way through the building.
The tragedy plunged the picturesque New England town of 27,000 people into mourning.
“I know that Newtown will prevail, that we will not fall to acts of violence,” said First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra. “It is a defining moment for our town, but it does not define us.”
A White House official said Obama mainly wrote the speech himself. He worked with presidential speechwriter Cody Keenan, who helped Obama write his speech last year after shootings in Tucson, Ariz., left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabby Giffords.
Just this past summer, Obama went to Aurora, Colo., to visit victims and families after a shooting spree at a movie theater in the Denver suburb left 12 dead.
In November 2009, Obama traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, to speak at the memorial service for 13 service members who were killed on the post by another soldier.
After the Colorado shooting in July, the White House made clear that Obama would not propose new gun restrictions in an election year and said he favored better enforcement of existing laws.
The Connecticut shootings may have changed the political dynamic in Washington, although public opinion in favor of gun control has declined over the years. While the White House has said Obama stands by his desire to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, he has not pushed Congress to act.
Several Democratic lawmakers, during appearances on the Sunday talk shows, said the gruesome killings at the school were the final straw in a debate on gun laws that has fallen to the wayside in recent years.
“This conversation has been dominated in Washington by — you know and I know — gun lobbies that have an agenda,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate. “We need people, just ordinary Americans, to come together, and speak out, and to sit down and calmly reflect on how far we go.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who is retiring, suggested a national commission on mass violence that would examine gun laws and what critics see as loopholes, as well as the mental health system and violence in movies and video games. Durbin said he supports the idea, and would add school safety to the list of topics to examine.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.,) said she would push legislation next year to ban future sales of military-assault weapons like those used in the elementary school shooting. The bill will ban big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.
The proposals were among the first to come from Congress in the wake of Friday’s shooting. Gun rights activists remained largely quiet on the issue, all but one declining to appear on the talk shows.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), defended the sale of assault weapons and said the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, who authorities say died trying to overtake the shooter, should have been armed.
Before leaving for Connecticut, the president watched a dance rehearsal for one of his daughters in suburban Maryland.
As he said in his radio address, “This weekend, Michelle and I are doing what I know every parent is doing — holding our children as close as we can and reminding them how much we love them.”