NEWTOWN — President Barack Obama said the reaction of the Newtown community to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting inspired a nation, but it also left us with some hard questions.
“Can we honestly say we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” Obama asked. “If we’re honest with ourselves the answer is, ‘no.’”
Since he’s been president, this is the fourth time he’s visited a grieving community following a mass shooting.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end and to end them we must change,” Obama said, acknowledging that change won’t be easy.
“We will be told the causes of such violence are complex,” he said. “And that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
If there’s anything they can do to spare other communities the grief that’s visited Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown, then “surely we have an obligation to try,” Obama told a standing room only audience.
In the coming weeks, he said he would use the power of his office to engage citizens, law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents, and educators in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.
“Because what choice do we have?” Obama said. “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
But Sunday’s vigil was not the time or the place to be making specific policy proposals. Instead, Obama read the names of the victims as the audience members filled with family and friends wept.
Click here to read a transcript of his full remarks, or click the play button below to listen to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s remarks and those of the President.
More than 1,500 people attended the interfaith vigil, including 15 victims’ families who met privately with Obama and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy prior to the official program. The vigil was one of many opportunities in the past two days for the community to gather in an effort to make sense of the second worst school shooting in the nation’s history.
Just two days ago, a gunman shot 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before taking his own life.
“The horror that was visited upon our Sandy Hook School was not deserved,” Newtown First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra said. “It is the angry and desperate act of a confused young man.”
She said there’s no blame “to be laid on us, but there is a great burden and a great challenge that we emerge whole.” She said the community must do everything it can to help these families heal.
“It is a defining moment for our town, but it does not define us,” Llodra said.
The massacre also may be a defining moment for the nation’s public policies on gun control and mental illness.
In introducing the president, Malloy said that Obama shared with him and Llordra that Friday was the most difficult day of his presidency. On Friday, Obama teared up as he addressed the nation.
On Sunday, Obama was somber but composed when he called for definitive action.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who sat across the aisle from Obama said, Newtown is a close-knit community.
“I don’t think the town will retreat from this tragedy,” he said.
And while he doesn’t believe the state or the community will shy away from the tough public policy conversations in the days ahead, he hopes people don’t use this tragedy as a reason to have them. Instead, McKinney hopes the conversations come about as the community “learns from the tragedy.”
Many of the people gathered in Newtown on Sunday, both at the high school and at makeshift monuments in honor of the victims, saw Obama’s display of emotion during his Friday address as comforting and appropriate.
Most also thought his decision to visit the community just three days after the incident was the right thing to do.
“Just the fact that he’s coming here, showing he cares, it’s huge for everyone here,” said Brandon Rosenberger, a UMass student who grew up in Sandy Hook.
Rosenberger and his family were standing in line outside the high school waiting to see the president. It was raining but they were wearing blankets, which the Red Cross was handing out to those who came to grieve.
“I’m hoping to hear support. It’s nice to know he cares,“ Brandon’s father, Alan Rosenberger, said.
Others who could not make it inside the packed school were appreciative of the president’s support but said they would rather have been able to mourn with their neighbors. Some were frustrated that out-of-towners were admitted to the vigil while Sandy Hook residents were left standing out in the rain.
That was the case for Edward Lenox Jr., who described Newtown as a tight-knit community. He said he was frustrated by the influx of news media and onlookers who came to the town because of Obama’s visit.
“Everybody knows each other here. But I don’t know these faces,” he said standing in the high school parking lot. “I want to be with my community.”
Lenox said the last few days have been frightening for everyone in Newtown, especially those that have children in the schools.
“When I get a message on my phone saying my 5-year-old son is in lockdown, it’s a lot,” he said.
Sunday had frightening moments even for people who came to the community to pay their respects. State Rep. Arthur O’Neill and his wife, Ruby Corby O’Neill, were attending a noon service at Newtown’s St. Rose of Lima Church when the building was evacuated by police over a bomb threat.
“State troopers wearing camouflage gear and carrying machine guns came in and said “Let’s go,’” Corby O’Neill said.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.