President Barack Obama, addressing a community and nation reeling after another schoolhouse shooting, pledged yesterday to use “whatever power” he holds to prevent tragedies like the slayings in Newtown, Connecticut.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” Obama said at a prayer vigil in the small New England town where 20 children and four teachers, a psychologist and principal died at the hands of a gunman wielding semi-automatic weapons on Dec. 14.
“These tragedies must end,” the president said. “In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
The president was not alone in his call for immediate action in the aftermath of the second-most fatal mass shooting in the U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said legislation proposing a ban on assault weapons will be introduced the first day of a new Congress in January.
“I’m going to introduce in the Senate, and the same bill will be introduced in the House -- a bill to ban assault weapons,” Feinstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday.
A society is judged by how well it can keep its children safe and thriving, Obama said at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
“Can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?” Obama asked. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
The president, quoting scripture, sought to console the families and the town, telling them that the entire nation grieves with them.
“I come to offer the love and prayers of the nation,” he said after reading a verse from Corinthians: “We fix our eyes not what is seen but what is unseen. What is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal.”
The killings by a single gunman armed with two handguns and a semiautomatic rifle and carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition have reignited a politically divisive debate over restrictions on firearms.
Without offering a specific course of action, Obama said that while there is no single solution to the complex problem of violence in American society, “that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”
“We can’t accept events like this as routine,” he said. “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?
Obama arrived in Newtown two days after the tragedy and as authorities were still trying to piece together a motive for the nation’s second-deadliest mass shooting. Only at the campus of Virginia Tech university in Blacksburg, Virginia, where 32 died in April 2007, were more people killed in a shooting.
Before the vigil, Obama met privately with the families of the victims and with emergency workers who were the first on the scene of the massacre.
Obama cited the heroism of the school staff and then concluded his remarks by reading the names of the 20 children who died when the gunman identified by police as Adam Lanza, 20 burst into the school and opened fire in two first grade classrooms. Six adults at the school also died.
Lanza, who fatally shot his mother at her home before going to Sandy Hook Elementary, killed himself at the scene.
The vigil marked the fourth time during his presidency Obama has gone to a city to console families after a lone gunman opened fire on unsuspecting victims. The three previous instances prompted no concerted effort to modify U.S. gun laws. This time, Obama is under increasing pressure from some Democrats in Congress and gun-control advocates to take a concrete stand on gun violence.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, faulted Obama for failing to act on an assault weapons ban and other restrictions, while congressional Democrats promised hearings and legislation.
Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, urged Congress to renew a 1994 ban on military-style firearms that expired in 2004. He called for improved databases to trace gun ownership, stricter enforcement of gun trafficking and more laws to prevent sales to criminals.
‘‘We don’t need people carrying guns in public places,” Bloomberg said on ‘Meet the Press.’’ “That’s not what the founding fathers had in mind. It doesn’t add to anybody’s safety. Quite the contrary, it makes us have a much more dangerous society.”
Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, said the shooting may be a “catalytic event” that provokes the country to examine violence in society and access to firearms.
“The murder of 20 children is really something that this country hasn’t seen in my lifetime and I think it’s touched everybody,” Lieberman said in an interview at the high school. “People are heartbroken but it’s also made people angry, and I just hope that we don’t lose those feelings and do whatever we can to try to prevent this thing from every happening again.”
Lieberman called for the naming of a commission to examine the causes of such events, which he said should include those in favor of stricter regulation of firearms, advocates for gun owners and representatives of the entertainment industry.
For Obama, expressing empathy and providing context in the midst of tragedy is becoming a familiar role.
Just five months ago, the president sought to comfort families after a mass shooting that left 12 dead at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
He traveled to Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 12, 2011, for a memorial service after the Jan. 7 attempted assassination of then-Representative Gabrielle Giffords, where six were killed and 13 wounded. In his first year, Obama went to Fort Hood, Texas, for a memorial service for 13 people killed there by a U.S. Army psychiatrist.