NEWTOWN, Conn. — President Barack Obama said at an interfaith prayer service in this mourning community this evening that the country is “left with some hard questions” if it is to curb a rising trend in gun violence, such as the shooting spree Friday at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.
After consoling victims’ families in classrooms at Newtown High School, the president said he would do everything in his power to “engage” a dialogue with Americans, including law enforcement and mental health professionals, because “we can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change.”
The president was not specific about what he thought would be necessary and did not even use the word “gun” in his remarks, but his speech was widely perceived as prelude to a call for more regulations and restrictions on the availability of firearms.
The grieving small town hosted the memorial service this evening as the the nation pieces together the circumstances that led to a gunman taking 26 lives Friday at the community’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, most first graders.
“Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside your body all of the time, walking around,” he said, speaking of the joys and fears of raising children.
“So it comes as a shock at a certain point when you realize no matter how much you love these kids you can’t do it by yourself,” he continued. “That this job of protecting kids and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, with the help of a community, and the help of a nation.”
The president asked whether holistically, the country could ask itself whether it was doing everything it could to meet its obligations in protecting all children.
“I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days and if we’re honest with ourselves the answer is no,” he answered. “We’ve not been doing enough. And we will have to change.”
Assuming a consoling role has become all too familiar for this presidency, which has born witness to five mass killings since assuming office in 2009. It was a trend Obama acknowledged in his remarks, hinting as he has done recently that his administration may pursue strengthening gun control laws as a response.
“Are we really prepared to say that such violence brought on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” he asked.
The president’s grim, direct tone came in the latter half of his appearance in the filled auditorium, after taking the first minutes to recite scripture and remember those lost when Adam Lanza broke into the elementary school with a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns, opening fire before committing suicide.
“Scripture tells us, do not lose heart,” he said. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For light and momentary troubles are achieving for us eternal glory that far outweigh them all.”
Faculty, staff, and some students of Newtown wore ribbons of green and white, the town and school colors, emblazoned with a small angel in the middle, in remembrance of the victims. Several first responders were also seen sporting the symbol.
“I am very mindful that mere words cannot reach the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you are not alone in your grief,” he continued. “That our world too has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight.”
Audible weeping broke out from child and adult alike as the president cited the names of faculty members who died in the attack, some protecting the children in their custody.
“They responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances: with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care,” he said.
The president ended his remarks in prayer.
“We pray, Lord, for all of those so torn by grief. In this moment, we are all your children. A family related by your love. Help us care for the families in sorrow. May they feel embraced by the neighborhood, town, state, nation, world,” he said. “Help us to forever remember we embrace the grieving as our own.”
A large number of elementary school students were in attendance at the interfaith service, many clutching stuffed animals and toys, including a puppy doll given out by the Red Cross.
The Newtown shooting is the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. It is surpassed only by the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting with 33 shot and killed, including the shooter.
The memorial service had been delayed nearly an hour as Obama met privately with first responders and families of the victims in classrooms of the high school.
The president walked in shortly before 8 p.m., gave a brief wave to the room full of parents, friends and neighbors, before taking a seat in the first row. He was met with a standing ovation.
“We needed this. We needed to be together, here in this room, in the gymnasium, outside the doors of this school, in living rooms around the world, we needed to be together to show that we are together and united,” said Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, who opened the ceremony.
“We gather in such a moment of heartbreak for all of us in Newtown,” he said. “We gather especially mindful of family and friends and neighbors among us who have lost loved ones by an act of unfathomable violence and destruction.
“These darkest days of our community shall not be the final word heard from us.”
The audience showed no signs of impatience, despite the delayed start. They sat quietly until a group of state police arrived at the already packed high school auditorium, but then stood to give the police a standing ovation and hugs.
Pat Calabrese and Rob Frate, two fathers whose third graders are students and best friends at the school, told reporters before the memorial that they knew several of the victims, but found comfort in tonight’s services.
“It’s bringing us all together for one thing, so we can see each other and talk without obstacles in front of us, to see the government and the United States cares as much to be here,” Frate said, although he added the next few days would be the toughest.
“We all support each other and I think that’s the beauty of Newtown,” said Calabrese. “Everyone here in this room and outside this room can walk anywhere inside the school, outside the school, hug each other, shake hands, and just comfort each other. And we all know that.”
The president’s reaction to this tragedy in New England has been his most publicly emotional. On Friday, tears collected in his eyes as he addressed the nation.
But the president has also been more directly political in the immediate aftermath of these killings, as national discussions simmer over how to move forward and what, if any, policy is needed to prevent future violence. The president said on Friday it was time for “meaningful action” to prevent such tragedies, “regardless of the politics.”
It is a subtle but noticeable shift for Obama, who has not actively pursued stricter gun control during his four years in office despite pledges to do so during his 2008 candidacy.
Although the White House says it needs support from Congress to move forward with strong legislation, it is also known that many politicians shied away to such reforms during the 2012 campaign season out of fear of alienating potential voters.
But with so many victims, and so many of them so young, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and activists sprung up over the weekend suggesting now was the time to push gun control.
The politicians include retiring Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was found among the crowd at the Newtown high school tonight. He weighed in with reporters about his call for a national commission on the subject, first voiced this morning on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I’m always reluctant about commissions, but I really believe we ought to have a National Commission on Violence,” Lieberman said.
Adding that the pain many Americans feel right now can be channeled for constructive purposes, Lieberman continued, “I worry that if we don’t take a thoughtful look” at this event, “we’re going to lose the hurt and the anger that we have now.
“And that includes looking at violence in the entertainment culture, mental health services and, of course, gun laws,” he said. “But I said that shouldn’t stop anything that the president and Congress want to do.”
One suggestion from the senator: that the existing background check system for federally registered firearms dealers should be expanded into areas he believe slipped through cracks in the law, such as gun shows and antiques dealers. Lieberman said he also supported reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
In reality the Obama administration has loosened federal restrictions on Second Amendment rights in some areas, including possession in national parks and on Amtrak. But during the second presidential debate in October the president signaled that he is ready to take new action on gun control, including reintroduction of the assault weapons ban.
A White House official says the president was the primary author of his remarks tonight, working with speechwriter Cody Keenan.